The Mountain Goats With Loamlands Dan's Silverleaf, Denton Friday, June 20, 2014
By Jezy J. Gray
I first saw the Mountain Goats in 2006 at The Opolis in Norman, Oklahoma. I was 19 and the band had just released their Get Lonely LP, songwriter John Darnielle's most polite and somber offering to date. The evening was similarly understated as Darnielle was joined on stage by a stand-up bass and three-piece drumset that backed his fragile, lilting vocals with the lightest touch. It was a beautiful set full of great songs, but what I remember the most from that night is the perplexed reaction from a friend I dragged to the show: "I don't know why you thought I would like that," he said afterward. "It was just some dude singing about cleaning his house."
It's been 12 years since Darnielle recorded "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," but the line stretching out the door of Dan's Silverleaf for Friday night's sold-out show was testament to the song's resonance here. (As of the time of this writing, the Denton show is the only Texas date on the tour that sold out--and tickets have been gone for weeks.)
Nonetheless, my friend's critique is a reasonable one, and it gets to the heart of what it means to enjoy Darnielle's music. On paper, a hyper-literate former Sunday school teacher with an acoustic guitar singing about Pan-Asian supermarkets ("Golden Boy") and defamed high school running backs ("Fall of the High School Running Back") might read to some as cloying and precious.
Fans of the Mountain Goats, though, recognize Darnielle's peerless knack for emotive storytelling and his ability to do big things in small spaces. Even when the lo-fi veneer of his early boombox recordings gave way to the sharp fidelity of records like Tallahassee (2002) and The Sunset Tree (2005), Darnielle retained his knack for creating miniature, tactile worlds where the mundane is made holy. (The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway, he sings on "Going to Georgia," is that it's you, and you're standing in the doorway.)
On Friday night, the crowd was clearly in tune with those facts and the excitement was palpable early on, as people ordered drinks two at a time to get into position for the set. Even though Darnielle is from Bloomington, Indiana--and, contrary to some online reporting, has never lived in Texas--his performance at Dan's felt like a homecoming.
And who wouldn't want to claim John Darnielle as their own? He took the stage promptly at 10:00 PM, grinning warmly in appreciation at the sold-out crowd, and spent the next hour and a half charming new listeners and reminding old faithfuls why we found his whole thing so compelling in the first place. Joined by long-time bassist Peter Hughes, Darnielle played a wide range of songs from his extensive catalogue, from Full Force Galesburg (1997) to 2012's Transcendental Youth. Raucous, melancholy classics like "No Children" were belted out with glee by the packed crowd, while sparse, delicate numbers like "Maybe Sprout Wings" hushed the room to a quiet that rarely falls over local crowds.
The warm reception for North Carolina quartet Loamlands proved that Denton is a hospitable place to be an opening act, and their larger numbers onstage illustrated just how pristine the sound quality at Dan's really is. The sound, while still sharp, was less central to the Mountain Goats set. (A broken string during "Woke Up New" confirmed that John Darnielle could have worked the room simply by standing on a chair and shouting his lyrics into the eager crowd.) Still, it was refreshing to see all of the perfunctory elements for a great show come together in Denton, where national tours seem to stop with less frequency each year.
I met up with Darnielle after the show and asked him what it's like coming back to the town that has such a special connection to his work. Did it feel at all like coming home? "Absolutely," he said. "You can feel it in the crowd. It hangs over the place. It's not this intense, even in Tallahassee--which is pretty intense. Denton is different, for sure."