Report from the Show: The Mountain Goats, The Fillmore, San Francisco, 12.14.12

The Mountain Goats
The Mountain Goats performing at The Fillmore in San Francisco, Dec. 14, 2012

John Darnielle didn’t avoid the issue. He met it head on. When he came out on the stage in San Francisco on Friday, before he played a note, The Mountain Goats‘ singer-songwriter acknowledged what was on everyone’s mind. Because, as much as the sold-out crowd at The Fillmore had been looking forward to some quality time with their favorite musical storyteller, their thoughts were 3,000 miles away in Connecticut. Darnielle’s thoughts were there, too. When he heard the news, he said, his first instinct was to cancel the show. He wondered how he could go on stage—how anyone could go on stage—and sing songs that night, with such terrible tragedy hanging in the air. But then he decided that the best way to honor those 20 children, who will never get a chance to attend a concert and sing along to their favorite song, was “by celebrating as loud as you can.” With that, the audience let out something that sounded half like a gracious cheer and half like a relieved sigh—secure in the knowledge that, not only was it OK to have a good time, it was our duty. And then Darnielle and the rest of the band, which on this tour includes a three-piece horn section, began playing “White Cedar” from the 14th and latest Mountain Goats release, Transcendental Youth.

I was standing by the bus stop on North East 33rd
When I got the word
I will be made a new creature
One bright day
I don’t have to be afraid
Speed that day on its way
And you can’t tell me what my spirit tells me isn’t true … can you?

Some shows become indelibly intertwined with the worldly affairs going on outside the concert hall. I remember seeing The Decemberists on Election Night 2006 as the Iraq War raged and Democrats appeared poised to re-take Congress. Singing, “Here all the bombs fade away,” with a few hundred other fellow sojourners at Clutch Cargo’s in Pontiac, Mich., it seemed like the tide of things was finally turning.

This concert is destined to be another example of this. I’m never quite going to be able to listen to some—maybe all—of Darnielle’s songs the same way.

For his part, Darnielle spoke often of his 15-month-old son back home, something he said he’d tried to avoid doing too much of on his first tour as a father, but with 28 shows down and three to go, his resolve was wearing thin. He said that he now understands how parents can claim to experience tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in a different way than those without children—not that the horror isn’t universal, but the agony tugs at your heart more intensely. He explained that the bouncy new song “The Diaz Brothers” “was written while watching the movie Scarface with a 3-month-old baby in my arms … and I’d do it again.” He prefaced a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” by saying he plays it for his son as a lullaby—and he was clearly geeked to be able to play a Dead tune at so venerable a San Francisco institution as The Fillmore.

The Mountain Goats
More from the Fillmore show.

“May the Lord strike me down if I ever get too maudlin about this, but there’s something very special about this room,” he said.

Part of the magic of a Mountain Goats show is that Darnielle can’t help but explain the stories behind each song. It’s nearly as entertaining as the music. In fact, at one point, during the type of lull in the show when audience members typically shout requests, a guy near me yelled out, “Just talk a lot!”

There are few bands that could offer the sort of catharsis that The Mountain Goats were able to offer. After all, Darnielle has been writing songs about cleaving to life in the midst of darkness for more than 20 years now. Survival has always been a running theme in his lyrics, something that he acknowledged with humor when he introduced “Up the Wolves“: “You could say this about a lot of my songs, but this song is about survival,” he said. Survival is also at the forefront on Transcendental Youth, where he comes right out and sings, “Just stay alive,” on two songs. And while this is fine advice for those who struggle with abuse, addiction or just sadness as adults, the lyrics brought me back to those 6- and 7-year-olds in Newtown, for whom survival was not a choice. And I started to become a bit withdrawn and gloomy—until a wobbly young lady next to me started pressing her palm repeatedly on my shoulder, apparently in an attempt to get me and others around me to be more animated and celebratory. It was our duty, after all.

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