The Mountain Goats have a cult-like following, to say the least. The audience had a strong presence at the Sylvee, so much so that it defined the night. What The Mountain Goats lack in vocal talent, they make up for in community-building among their fanbase and vivid lyricism.
At this show, I felt like a researcher looking into an unfamiliar society. The Mountain Goats have created a whole universe of music with recurring characters and plotlines and built a civilization among fans. I attempted a Wikipedia crash course on their 28-year music career, but even the most intense fans in the audience had some knowledge gaps. There is enough literature and lore with the band and the fans to build an actual anthropology class.
Brett Williams, a fan at the Sylvee, is so committed to the folk-rock band that he drove about 1,027 miles from Fort Worth, Texas to the final show on May 21. He caught shows in Chicago and Minneapolis on the way.
This kind of odyssey is a common practice among devotees. Unless your favorite song is a heavy-hitter like “No Children,” a divorce anthem that blew up on TikTok in 2021, you never really know when or if you’ll hear it live. The Mountain Goats have been making music since 1994, amassing 20 albums and over 600 songs, according to Indyweek. Williams was lucky enough to hear “Green Olives,” an elusive unreleased song.
“The thing about Mountain Goats fans… We are really nice but people like to talk about the songs they’ve seen,” explained concertgoer Shannon Brennan.
“You collect them like Pokémon cards,” added Haley Prochilo.
Brennan was correct about the kindness of the crowd. She and her friends were excited to talk to me and quiz me about what songs I knew and how I came to listen to the band. People chatted amongst each other and made fast friends. The fans in my immediate vicinity were careful with their drinks and maintained a polite degree of personal space, a rarity at most concerts.
They were also incredibly receptive to opener Will Sheff of Okkervil River. He gave a stripped down-performance but held command of the stage and audience with his acoustic guitar. With his long brown hair and round glasses, he bears a striking resemblance to John Lennon. It gets more uncanny when you focus on his poetic lyrics, usually centered on intimate accounts of love and introspection.
His fourth song in the set was called “Famous Tracheotomies” and was written for a friend’s musical compilation about body parts. Sheff talked about his own childhood tracheotomy that inspired the song with a nonchalant buoyancy before launching into vivid vignettes of a traumatic medical procedure.
He feels his parents’ terror at seeing their only kid get his throat cut open. He feels Mary Wells’ desperation when insurance wouldn’t cover her laryngeal cancer treatment. He feels the solace Ray Davies found in the Waterloo sunset.
The lyrics take center stage due to their quality and the character of Sheff’s voice. It has a simple, open tone that makes every line sound like an emotionally-charged message directed at you and you alone. Belted notes had a loud raspy quality that further evoked a desperate, confessional style.
Sheff has the kind of voice that would turn heads at an open mic night but not necessarily capture a crowd of 2,000. His masterful use of the English language is what accomplished that.
When The Mountain Goats entered the stage in ill-fitting suits, the crowd hooted and applauded. The band looked like a set of four high school teachers who rehearse in the band room after school, then perform at the annual variety show.
Frontman and founder John Darnielle kicked off the show with war-inspired “Aulon Raid” off of “Songs for Pierre Chuvin,” an album released in 2020. Blue lights illuminated the subtle mountain backdrop as Darnielle whined the chorus, “me and my crew, we will deal with you.” The audience sang along to just that lyric, establishing a feeling that we were the crew he was referring to. We were all united by and with John Darnielle, this goat-bearded guy.
Frankly, I can’t get over Darnielle’s nasally voice. He sounds like Kermit the Frog in the midst of both a nasty cold and midlife crisis. The Mountain Goats’ lyrics and the stories that intertwine through their whole catalog is what drives them artistically, not vocal talent.
After a couple songs, Darnielle stopped to drink some water. People cheered like he had just made a witty remark or done a cool guitar trick, and he smiled like he was in on the joke.
The drums kicked in with a quick and steady beat. They felt like the pitter-patter of rain pounding on the window during a thunderstorm; there’s an unbridled force of nature outside, but you are safe inside. “Younger” also plays on the mythic and warlike themes of “Aulon Raid” but in a more disillusioned tone.
Darnielle compares his youthful expectations of the faces, voices and shadows he sees to the reality he sees, and seems disappointed in the results of the passage of time. Keyboardist Matt Douglas played a jazzy saxophone solo to close out the song and bring us into the next one.
Darnielle paused for another water break and a quick chat. He speaks to the audience like he’s catching up with a friend rather than addressing a crowd of over 2,000 fans. He mentioned that this was the last stop on tour and said how grateful they were to have Matt Douglas back.
Earlier in May, Douglas contracted COVID-19 and had to miss a couple stops on tour. Darnielle suggested that he probably caught it at a show from a fan not wearing a mask, and asked the audience to put on their masks if they had them.
“It’s what the cool kids are doing nowadays, I hear,” he lectured with raised eyebrows.
After a couple more stories about Belgium, Leonard Cohen and drugs, Darnielle began talking about spirituality. He said that he felt jealous of religious people.
“They have this ability to surrender that I guess I lack,” he mused.
Darnielle then discussed religious music and the way that churches will take huge, elaborate metaphors and incorporate them into a catchy hymn.
“With that, here’s Tidal Wave,” he announced.
“Tidal Wave” repeats over and over that not every wave is a tidal wave. It sends the message that hardships come in all different shapes and sizes and do different amounts of damage. The shimmery keyboards and an a cappella section invoked contemporary church music, and Darnielle’s dorky English teacher persona pivoted to that of a nerdy youth group pastor.
“Someday that will be the whole set,” joked Darniellle as the rest of the band exited the stage.
He played a four-song solo set, partially planned and partially curated in the moment.
“Sometimes I plan out the middle section,” he explained as he tuned his acoustic guitar. “Sometimes I wait for the spirit to hit me. Protestant envy.”
He played “Raja Vocative,” a hyperspecific love song and “Alpha Omega,” a vignette of an anticlimactic end to a marriage. Both were slower, but the set took a turn.
“Now here is one of the stupidest songs in the Mountain Goats’ catalog,” announced Darnielle before launching into a jaunty guitar riff and bouncing on his toes.
“The Anglo-Saxons” is about, well, the Anglo-Saxons. We all learned that they painted their bodies blue and held their history through oral tradition, and had fun doing it. Darnielle’s dorky teacher vibes were off the charts for this song, and just got stronger in his commentary after the song.
He described it as “stupid” because it’s not factually accurate. Darnielle admitted that he oversimplified the various Anglo-Saxon tribes and traditions to create the best song and found that hilarious. He laughed in-between phrases as he made fun of anthropologists assigning meaning to ancient traditions.
“They painted themselves blue because it looked cool,” he proposed as the obvious explanation.
Hearing an unreleased Mountain Goats song in concert is like finding a handwritten note in a used book. It’s a rare occurrence, and it creates a shared experience and a feeling of parasocial connection between complete strangers.
On May 21, at the Sylvee in Madison, Wisconsin, all four current members performed “Incandescent Ruins” together for the very first time.
“Incandescent Ruins” has only been played in concert four times, according to The Mountain Goats Fandom Wiki. There are no recordings online.
The beat was bouncy and felt optimistic but with a twist of sadness from the keyboard. Honestly, I am not entirely sure of what the song meant. Darnielle explored the concept of perception of worth and quality while using painful bodily imagery like bloody sleeves and chins on concrete.
What I am entirely sure of is that we were all a part of something special. This song existed just for those of us at the Sylvee. It felt like the anthem of a secret society.
At Darnielle’s next water break, the crowd cheered again. He laughed, and then finally explained the inside joke.
“As I’ve said many times before, get a job where people clap when you drink water,” he said. “The people in this song have no job at all.”
He then kicked off “Southwood Plantation Road,” which can only be described as the most upbeat divorce song I have ever heard. The album the song’s on, “Tallahassee,” is about the emotionally complex process of a fictional couple realizing that their marriage doesn’t work, making the decision to end it and coping with that loss.
The Mountain Goats closed their set with “This Year.” The song is defiantly optimistic, and the opening chords released an unaddressed tension held in the crowd. Everyone jumped, danced and shouted. This kind of shared hope and catharsis felt amazing to share with so many people, especially after two years of distance and disease.
The Mountain Goats trotted off to a chant of “one more song,” and re-entered about a minute later. The encore set was based around a rebellious optimism. We collectively celebrated gladiatorial victories, wolves returning home and of course, more divorce.
Most of The Mountain Goats’ discography is bleak but in a self-aware way. Darnielle knows just how painful his songs are, and he chooses to laugh in the face of that pain. Amongst all of the negative and uncomfortable emotions and experiences they explore in their music, The Mountain Goats always hang on to a shred of hope, usually out of desperation and spite.
At this concert and in the process of writing this review, I’ve felt like an anthropologist compiling possible reasons the Anglo-Saxons painted their skin blue. I feel like an outsider looking in — journalistic integrity demands that I do my research and contextualize my observations. There is so much lore through The Mountain Goats’ discography and presence as a band.
But I’m going to take a Darnielle approach to analyzing this concert. The Anglo-Saxons painted their skin blue because it looked cool. The Mountain Goats put on one hell of a show and have built one hell of a community. It’s as simple as that.
Final Grade: B-