The streak that runs through John Darnielle’s 20-plus year run as the songwriter (and sole constant member) of The Mountain Goats is one of humanity, of dignity, of compassion, and of empathy. Empathy for the would-be outlaw, “frozen with joy” 40 miles from Atlanta, empathy for the addict, his “whole life recorded/In disappearing ink,” empathy for an imploding marriage, and for a family (indeed, his own) suffering at the hands of an abuser. He’s written entire albums that focus on a house full of tweakers in the Pacific Northwest (We Shall All Be Healed), building secular tales around Biblical verses (The Life of the World to Come), and the death metal bands and safehouses of the American Southwest (All Hail West Texas). With each successive record, Darnielle delved deeper into the human condition, and, at times, his own biography.
The Mountain Goats’ most recent record, last year’s Beat The Champ, focuses on the pre-WWF pro wrestling heroes of Darnielle’s youth. Chavo Guerrero has his star turn, Bruiser Brody’s mysterious death is investigated (in the first person!), and Apache Bull Ramos gets his very own Ballad. Hiding towards the end of the album is the immaculate “Luna,” one of the most beautiful songs of Darnielle’s career, chronicling the housefire that led to the tragic downward spiral at the end of Luna Vachon’s life. “Those last few frames/Go down so fast/Rise through the flames and end again in flames at last.”
Above anything, Darnielle has proven himself adept at identifying turning points in people's’ lives, both subtle and dramatic, and either fleshing out the results (the harrowing “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace”) or foreshadowing consequences to come (“This Year,” perhaps his best-known song, which leaves us to imagine a “cavalcade of anger and fear”). Onstage, Darnielle brings his vivid stories to life with the help of longtime bassist Peter Hughes and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster (who will be pulling double Midpoint duty with Bob Mould on Saturday) as well as relative newcomer Matt Douglas, a multi-instrumentalist who joined the group in support of Beat the Champ and has represented the first significant step forward in the band’s live sound in years. Together, they’re a passionate, electrifying presence, worthy of their cult following and deserving of prime festival slots such as this weekend’s.
The Mountain Goats
Midpoint Music Festival, WNKU Stage
8:15-9:15, Saturday, September 24