The Mountain Goats | Water Liars April 21, 2012 The Gargoyle
I'm just going to call it now: the most common response to this review will be "I didn't know the Mountain Goats played in St. Louis this weekend." John Darnielle and his crew flew in to play a one-off show on the closing night of Washington University's KWUR week at the Gargoyle. The campus venue has been maligned in the past for the Girl Talk tazing incident, the sober Hold Steady show, and the time These Arms Are Snakes had to play with the fire alarm blaring during its whole set. From the stage, Darnielle announced that people had expressed reservations to him about the room, saying things like, "Trust me, you don't want to play there." He said this in shock, having been impressed by the fact that during one of his quietest songs ("Dinu Lipatti's Bones"), he could have heard a pin drop.
From the other side of the stage, the reason for the silence was not so much a matter of mass respectfulness as poor attendance springing from the minimal amount of promotion done for the show. I don't want to harp on the venue too hard - they're kids, they're trying. But, generally speaking, when you book one of the greatest living songwriters, you tell some people. Make a Facebook event page (tacking it onto your KWUR Week event doesn't count). Put it on your website. The crowd was mostly students, a maximum of 80 strong. This puts the ratio of attendees to security guards around ten to one.
So, as with most shows at the Gargoyle, the success of the night stemmed on the performers' ability to transcend the room's inherent discomfort. Local opener Water Liars pulled it off nobly, their set of damaged folk no more awkward than an opening set should be. For as new as the band is, Water Liars is already a strong, developed live act. When prompted by an audience member to tell a joke between songs, singer Justin Kinkel-Schuster said, "I applied to this school. They didn't let me in. That's a fucking joke." Chuckles all around.
The Mountain Goats took the stage gently with "Wild Sage." John Darnielle has one of those voices that makes you melt the second he sings into a microphone, instant distinction and familiarity. The trio of Darnielle, lanky bassist Peter Hughes and lovable Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster appeared comfortable during its hour-ish set, with a certain level of endearing looseness throughout. Darnielle frequently strummed his acoustic-electric guitar harder and faster than necessary, as if he just wanted to rock soooooo badly.
With the exception of reworkings of "Jeff Davis County Blues" and "California Song," the group dug no further back into its discography than 2002's Tallahassee album, the first "full band" Mountain Goats record -- or at least the first that was not recorded into a Sony Walkman. An early peak was "Damn These Vampires," which Darnielle introduced by saying, "This is a song about how you get irritated when somebody tries to suck your blood." There are no more adequate words than "crazy eyes" to describe his expression when singing "Sleep like dead men / Wake up like dead men."
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