“You saved my life,” shouts one fan to John Darnielle, the songwriter and frontman for The Mountain Goats, towards the end of the band’s blistering set in Bristol’s converted church venue Trinity.
Darnielle, acknowledges the compliment but with perspective. “No I didn’t. You did that, all I did was provide the music you listened to at the time,” he replied.
This exchange is a good indicator of how Darnielle’s story telling song writing style, which always offers hope amidst despair, impacts on his fans.
It also shows how much he knows the value of music as a healer, whether he is singing about his own demons, from an abusive home life on the album The Sunset Tree, or about the real, sometimes tragic lives, of his wrestling heroes on the band’s latest album “Beat the Champ.”
This respect for the power of music is also evident in The Mountain Goats live performance here, as it perfectly blended Beat the Champ tracks with a career spanning greatest hits show across, an at times, frantic hour and 45 minutes.
Darnielle is equally at home jumping around on stage with a full band and leading sing-a-longs on crowd pleasers such as No Children, This Year and Up the Wolves, as he is during the set’s solo middle section, which included an excellent version of 2008’s Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle complete with a discussion about the killing skills of the Nintendo plumber.
This solo section also provided a chance to play some of his older tracks to please the old guard that were evident here. This included Song for an Old Friend, from a 1995 compilation from Pottery Records called The Wheel Method, as well as Waving At You, from 1996’s Nothing For Juice album.
While driven by Darnielle’s songs and stage prescence The Mountain Goats for some time have been a proper band, with Jon Wurster’s emotionally charged drumming and Peter Hughes’ melodic bass now firmly part of The Mountain Goats sound.
Increasingly on record, with albums such as Beat the Champ and All Eternals Deck, there has a good use of horn and string sections as well.
For this leg of the tour they are joined by Matt Douglas on clarinet, sax as well as guitar and keyboards. He is a welcome addition bringing the latest recorded band sound to stage, especially on Beat the Champ tracks such as the epic Heel Turn 2, which has the potential to be as big a live favourite as This Year and No Children.
The last time we saw The Mountain Goats in Bristol was a couple of years ago with just Darnielle and Hughes at the more sedate setting of St George’s Church. To see Darnielle and co for the first time as a pogo-ing rock outfit in a packed venue showed what a truly rich live act they are.
While the life saving ability of their songs is still open to question they are without doubt one of the most life affirming acts around.
Words and pictures by Joe Lepper