Live: The Mountain Goats at Webster Hall
The Mountain Goats perform at the Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight. It is sold out.
No drummers here! CREDIT
The Mountain Goats
"Judas!" somebody shouted, half-muffled, from the back of Webster Hall as chief Mountain Goat John Darnielle strutted joyously among smoke machine puffs and twirling lights, carrying a blonde Telecaster and leading a power trio. And if I was mishearing things, somebody definitely should have shouted it. Like Dylan, Darnielle has no reason to believe such an accusation, but that doesn't mean it's not true, either.
"We are a generation that has romanticized self-loathing in hopes that it will get us laid," Darnielle announced, introducing "Autoclave" during the first part of the performance, the Telecaster still waiting in the wings. "We should be ashamed at ourselves about this. This does not entirely invalidate the trope of self-loathing as possible fodder for songs." As on the recently released Heretic Pride, Darnielle was accompanied by longtime bassist Peter Hughes and new drummer Jon Wurster, formerly of Superchunk. Even more than the electric guitar, it is Wurster's presence that is lithely shocking.
Through its 17-year existence—a lifespan that's included numerous albums with drummers—Darnielle's peculiar energy always been the group's undisputed center of gravity. No matter what form the Mountain Goats took on tape, or in what fidelity, one could be reasonably sure that the songs would make ultimate sense rendered by Darnielle and Hughes alone, some unstated contrarian/purist mission about being able to rock harder without drums than with them. Certainly, their incessant touring and rabid live following is a testament to that—their packed appearance at Webster Hall being their biggest Manhattan appearance yet. It is not Wurster's fault that, positioned center stage—Darnielle and Hughes some 25 feet away from one another on either side—he makes the band seem like a parody of themselves, like Nirvana in Ed Sullivan drag a la "Lithium."
Playing naturally and finding an easy pocket in Darnielle's manic strums, Wurster dropped stadium-sized mallet thumps behind 2005's "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod" and an almost atmospheric backbeat to 2006's "New Monster Avenue." But even Wurster's grandest cymbal splashes were no match for those Darnielle has often seemed to imagine as he plays. In the presence of an actual drummer, Darnielle's guitar playing seemed somewhat diminished, as if it had surrendered part of its mission. Mid-set, Hughes and Wurster departed for four songs, but the energy level went unchanged, shifting easily from the typically strident attack of "Genesis 19:1-2" (from 2002's Devil in the Shortwave EP) to a meditative "Have To Explode" (from 2002's Tallahassee, though only recently played live).
All too soon, the rhythm section returned, making literal Darnielle's longtime reggae flirtations on a cover of the Wailers' "Babylon Burning" and his own recent "Sept 15 1983" (about the death of singer Prince Far I). Wurster's presence was nothing if not logical, but it's hard not to yearn for Darnielle and Hughes particular dynamics on numbers like "Love, Love, Love." For all his aesthetic negotiations, though, Darnielle still remained an engaging showman, introducing songs with his pocket fictions. "All you really need is a television and a pencil, with which to mark the days you've stayed in the house, on one or all of the walls," he announced before "In the Craters of the Moon." "This song was written with that pencil."
Even though Wurster's presence dominated uncomfortably, it was a Mountain Goats' show through and through: deep cuts (Sweden's "California Song," with Darnielle acting as guitarless frontman), clever covers (R. Kelly's "The Greatest," maybe not quite as lovely as Bonnie O(+>'s), and—finally—a Mountain Goats' song that genuinely needs drums to exist, 2002's "See America Right," which bottled up and exploded just exactly as it should. John Darnielle has made and broken plenty of rules over his career, dangerous games all, but adding a drummer has made his music as safe as it has ever been. It's a good thing he's still John Darnielle.