I feel kinda bad after giving In League With Dragons an average review, because I love the Mountain Goats so much. So, to make up for that, I’m going to retroactively review all six Mountain Goats shows I’ve seen and show you just how much I love the Mountain Goats. This is penance. Sorry in advance if you’re not interested. That’s how penance works sometimes.
1. The Opolis – Norman, OK – October 26, 2006. What I Learned: The Mountain Goats can suck you in live. Before this show, the extent of my Mountain Goats knowledge was favoriting “It Froze Me” on Pandora. However, I loved “It Froze Me” so much that I later recorded a cover of it. When the assignment came up to go to review this show for a now-defunct, online-only University of Oklahoma student publication called The Hub, I jumped at the chance. It’s weird that I got paid to discover my favorite band of all time, but that’s a thing that happened.
So I did actually write a review of this show once already, but it’s lost to the sands of time and the vagaries of the internet. I remember much of it, though: it was a pretty packed house for the teeny Opolis. It was a trio of John, Peter, and Franklin Bruno (on keys). They played almost all of Get Lonely before playing any of the hits, and I was entranced by the urgency of all the tracks from Get Lonely. Imagine my utter surprise when everyone started singing “No Children” at the top of their lungs. I had already fallen in love with tMG from the first half of the set, but the back half of the set cemented it. I was hooked.
A few weird notes from this show: I very much remember being creeped out by their cover of Nothing Painted Blue’s “Houseguest.” I have an affection for “In Corolla” that probably stems from it being the closer. I probably could have had a long conversation with John Darnielle if I had known that this was a thing that would be highly coveted in the next 13 years. It was an amazing night.
2. The Granada Theater – Dallas, TX – November 19, 2009. What I learned: The Mountain Goats can rip. Still living in Norman, OK, I drove myself down to Dallas toward the end of my last semester in college to catch tMG on the Life of the World to Come tour. This is probably my favorite experience seeing the Mountain Goats, as the set list fit me perfectly at the time except for “Raja Vocative.” This live version of tMG was actually a four-piece combo, with John on acoustic, Peter on bass, a pre-joined-the-band Jon Wurster on drums, and a hired gun on electric guitar. They turned “Against Pollution” into a rager; seriously, listen to that tape of it and hear John just dissolve into his own fury by the second verse and chorus, to say nothing of the guitar and drums just flailing it out mid-song. That version is the penultimate song of the last show of the tour, so it gets an extended rock-out coda that I didn’t get, which is all the better for you the listener. That song still lives on in my mind as one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had live at a concert.
It was John at his most professional and least off-the-cuff, so I remember almost no banter at all. I still hadn’t dug into Tallahassee yet, so “See America Right” went over my head other than being notably intense. I absolutely loved the performance of “Thank You Mario, But Our Princess Is In Another Castle,” which astonishingly you can see a partial video of here. The people talking in this video are clearly not aware of what brilliance they are apparently deeming themselves more important than.
Weird note: I had a frenemy in high school that devolved into a longstanding, low-simmering feud over petty and insignificant high school things. We actually went to the same university but he went math/science, and I went arts/communication. I remember looking across the room in between the opener (the incredible Owen Pallett, then performing as Final Fantasy) and seeing the frenemy. He looked directly at me, pointed to me, nodded, and looked up toward the stage. We both knew that we both loved the Mountain Goats. Our feud was over. The Mountain Goats are powerful.
(Also, I didn’t get to hear the tMG/Final Fantasy version of “Alpha Omega” live, as they did that version eight days later. But it’s one of my favorite tMG live jams ever and it deserves mention here. Please enjoy Owen Pallett and John Darnielle’s mutual appreciation society paying back enormous benefits. I love this grainy, grungy recorded video so much that I included it as part of my “listen to the Mountain Goats” pitch and somehow at least one person believed me.)
3. ACM @UCO Performance Lab – Oklahoma City, OK – October 6, 2010. What I Learned: The Mountain Goats can construct amazing setlists. This one-off show was due to the school-of-rock ACM@UCO bringing John in. Wye Oak opened and played the heartbreaking ode to a dying person “I Hope You Die,” which had some of the most charming opening banter I’ve ever heard: it ran something like “I’m really honored to play with The Mountain Goats. When I play this song, I think of the Mountain Goats. I mean, not that I hope they die. In this song, the sentiment is supposed to be sweet. I don’t hope the Mountain Goats die. I’m gonna stop and just play the song.”
My most vivid memory of this show is the closer “California Song,” which is basically bass and Casio in the original; John let Peter handle the instruments and instead wandered around stage singing this beautiful/weird song like he was a frontman in a punk rock band. He leaned into the audience on a bass-and-casio song. The Mountain Goats are brilliant.
This show also features an almost immaculate playlist: my personal favorite “Waving At You”; the rare “Fall of the High School Running Back” and “Lion’s Teeth”; and the “just play the hits” run of “Dance Music,” “This Year”, and “No Children” back-to-back-to-back.” The one exception is “Minnesota,” which, fine, yes, he has so many songs and knows so many of them that I can’t keep up. (An admission: Full Force Galesburg is one of the only non-EP Mountain Goats records that I haven’t purchased.)
I would remember more about this show but I was tailing off a horrible year that would take a strong sharp turn upwards in roughly three weeks after this gig; it was deeply moving at the time, but I’d mostly like to forget everything except the resulting personal character development from January to October of 2010. It was still great though, and I now love “California Song” and “I Hope You Die” with unquenchable passion. So, no weird notes from this show.
4. Haw River Ballroom – Saxaphaw, NC – June 27, 2014 – What I Learned: The Mountain Goats know their deep cuts. Another one-off show, and easily the weirdest tMG show I’ve seen. This was a benefit show for Girls Rock NC, so John peppered his set with cover songs originally written by women. These one-off, exclusive performances were gold (you can see a video of “Spellbound” by Siouxsie & The Banshees here). However, these special songs were thrown into a set of almost aggressively atypical selections: deep cuts “Baboon” and “Grendel’s Mother,” b-sides “Rotten Stinking Mouthpiece” and (the deeply moving) “Steal Smoked Fish,” unreleased ultra-gem “You Were Cool,” side project song “Thank You Mario” (again!), and a pre-release version of “Southwestern Territory.” This resulted in one of those you-had-to-be-there shows that was also a weird follow-up to the “just play the hits” show I saw in 2010. Yet it was not one of those “everyone calls out songs and John plays some of them” shows, because it was in a giant theater.
Weird note: I bought Tallahassee at this show because after hearing “Have to Explode,” I decided it was time to go for it. I’d heard so many Tallahassee songs live at that point that I just needed to make it happen. So I did. It’s way up on my list of favorite tMG albums now, and I may have switched from being a Sunset Tree person to a Tallahassee person (although my ultimate allegiance is to The Life of the World to Come).
5. Cat’s Cradle – Carrboro, NC – April 7, 2015 – What I Learned: The Mountain Goats can go and go. This one is the first set I saw with JD’s current method of playing shows: full band set, JD solo set, second full band set, encores. The first set held two of my favorite Beat the Champ songs (“Southwestern Territory,” “Foreign Object”) and three personal faves (“Slow West Vultures,” “Get Lonely,” and “Cry for Judas”). The solo set had “There Will Be No Divorce” in it, which is in the running for my favorite tMG song with “Against Pollution,” so that pretty much brought the house down for me. We also got “Love Love Love,” “Up the Wolves,” and “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator #1,” none of which I had yet heard and all of which ruled.
Weird facts: This set was a herculean 24 songs long. Yet John was so stoked about this set that for his encore he played a song he wrote for his son that he had apparently never played live before. He asked that it not be recorded. It was remarkably tender. I try to remember as much of it as I can, because I won’t ever hear it again. God bless all Dads everywhere, and especially those who fight their own demons to father their own children well.
6. Crescent Ballroom – Phoenix, AZ – September 11, 2018 – What I Learned: The Mountain Goats will always make it worth your time. By this point, I’d seen enough Mountain Goats shows that I have a list of songs I haven’t seen that I would love to see live (within reason; there are good reasons for “Going to Georgia” to not be played live, and I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a special event for “Cubs in Five” to make it back out), and wouldn’t you know it, I got three of them in this show: an appropriately ferocious “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” deep cut fave “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” and the very fun “Southwood Plantation Road.” I also didn’t know how much I needed “Heel Turn 2” in my life, because that was impressive too. So no matter how many tMG shows you’ve seen, JD will always make it worth it for you. That’s the mark of a true great live show: you can see it over and over and it will still rule. It still rules.
Weird fact: the first half of this set, other than “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” seemed dedicated to finding tracks that I am just not into–the setlist was not my favorite one (that’s the ACM@UCO show). Two of the three solo set songs I had never heard before (“Soft Targets,” “Dutch Orchestra Blues”). I got an extra copy of the official Mountain Goats fan card (card-carrying member!) and mailed it to my friend Jeff, the one who gamely listened to the grainy “Alpha Omega” and got into the Goats big time. The Goats transcend time, space, sound quality, better judgment, and youthful enthusiasm.
So there you have it: six Mountain Goats shows, all of which were grade A or better. (Soon there will be another entry in this list, as I will be seeing John solo in San Francisco in February with Jeff.) You should very much go see the Mountain Goats, no matter what album tour they’re on–they will make it worth your time. Undeniably and in any format, they are a fantastic live band, and you should go see them. Consider this a make-good for that lukewarm review of In League With Dragons.