The Mountain Goats' hyper-literate, happily rambling front man John Darnielle led the Durham, North Carolina rockers through a vibrant, hilarious and continually surprising two-hour set last night at New York City's Bowery Ballroom—the first of a three-night run coinciding with the release of their excellent 16th album, All Eternals Deck (out today on Merge Records).
The Mountain Goats entered the Bowery stage to strains of scabrous thrash metal after a bucolic set by Seventies-inspired folk-rockers Megafaun. A favorite genre of esoteric music scholar Darnielle, metal's intensity and fascination in the occult (if not its decibels) are incorporated repeatedly into All Eternals Deck. (Metal stalwart Erik Rutan, of Morbid Angel and Hate Eternal, produced four tracks.)
Flanked by bassist Peter Hughes, keyboardist Yuval Semo and drummer Jon Wurster (also of Superchunk), Darnielle opened with the gentle "Liza Forever Minnelli” off the new disc, glibly endearing himself to the crowd by threatening their death: "Anyone here mentions ‘Hotel California’ dies before the first line clears his lips,” he sang in nasal lilt, pointing with deadpan menace into the left balcony.
The set list borrowed largely from All Eternals Deck and fan-favorite releases from the last decade, especially 2002’s Tallahassee ("Southwood Plantation Road,” "No Children”) and 2005’s The Sunset Tree ("Dilaudid,” "Broom People”), which Darnielle introduced with a rare moment of solemnity: "When your abuser dies, some things open up inside you,” he explained of his stepfather's 2003 death that inspired the record. The group also exhumed a rarity from their 1994 10-inch EP Beautiful Rat Sunset, which prompted Darnielle's rumination on his departed pet rat’s life span. Faithful visits to the acerbic "Family Happiness” (off 2000’s The Coroner’s Gambit) and the cheekily overwrought "Damn These Vampires” from the new album contributed to the wry morbidity.
The Mountain Goats’ most enduring songs detail characters in bleak dilemmas, but their most popular is autobiographical: "This Year” (from The Sunset Tree), Darnielle’s anthem of abused despondency turned tearful resilience. It revealed a famous fan on Monday evening: as the band’s set closed, they introduced Hold Steady singer Craig Finn. (Watch a video of the song below.) He ecstatically swapped verses with Darnielle, clapping and howling through the affirming chorus ("I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me”) with a broad grin only rivaled by Darnielle’s.
Two lengthy encore sets followed — including a heavy, predatory cover of Silkworm’s "Plain” and the lovely "Palmcorder Yajna” from 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed — but Darnielle’s uplifting duet was the clear apex. "You’re coming back tomorrow, right?” he asked the delirious audience afterward. A sea of devout heads nodded up at him.