Barefoot and jovial, John Darnielle made a lively strut to center stage where, surrounded by twin candelabras, he took to the piano like a demented Appalachian count and got to work. The Mountain Goats, a unit that, at various points in the past few decades, has very often just been Darnielle, was present as a tight, four-piece complete with a bearded saxophonist. They had released, earlier this year on Merge, an album about ‘80s goth subculture, as practiced in the suburbs of Los Angeles during Darnielle’s youth. “Outside it’s 92 degrees/and KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees,” his precise timbre remembers.
Darnielle’s world is wide, encompassing niches with a collector’s fervor. Previous records have recalled the forgotten lives lives of 50s singer songwriters (2012’s Transcendental Youth) and the elaborate mythmaking fanfiction of professional wrestling fans (2015’s Beat the Champ). Before his show begins, I hear the din of a crusty metal power ballad, “Stone Cold” by Rainbow, reverberating in the walk-in playlist; Darnielle, in addition to penning two novels, has also jotted a title on Black Sabbath’s stoner masterpiece, Master of Reality.
This does not prepare me for the essence of Darnielle’s character, which is unassuming, humble like apple pie and self-lacerating like a Kiss cover band playing the nearby bar. The grand piano and spooky lights suggests that the fifty year old Darnielle might be embarking on the Bob Dylan phase of his career but he just as soon breezily dismisses them, along with his band, to make good on some bone-fide classics—the bitter emo dreamworld of “Autoclave” is ushered into the evening air, may its throne of human skulls not be forgotten. The lights morph slowly away from red drapes sewn by Twin Peaks fanatics to a pulsing purple candyshop of human emotion. Darnielle writes songs about lives pushed to their emotional endpoints, moored only to despair as a kind of church. And we pray.