Review: Mountain Goats @ Trinity Centre, Bristol

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“You saved my life” came the cry from the stage side. John Darnielle didn’t look round.

“No, you saved your life. I just made music you listened to while you did it”

The applause that followed should say much about the depth of feeling that exists for the Mountain Goats. An old church turned concert venue in Bristol is in some ways exactly the place you’d expect them to play, yet the crowd of several hundred seemed to cling onto every note as though they’d never heard them before.

For many years, the Mountain Goats only existed as a collective name for John Darnielle, the dorky and slightly reedy singer whose writing really makes the band. But joining him on stage were a bassist halfway between the Kray twins and Andy Burnham, a drummer channelling Peep Show’s Super Hans and on rhythm guitar, sax, clarinet and keyboards, a bearded man we never once saw smile but who had the air of a virtuoso locked away in self imposed exile for ten years.

The opening third of a 21-track set was given over to material from Beat the Champ, the band’s latest album – a rock opera of sorts about the majesty of professional wrestling. It gave us the full range of Mountain Goats weirdness from the start, from the desperate strains of Heel Turn 2 (“Spend too much of my life now trying to play fair, throw my better self overboard, shoot at him when he comes up for air”) to the refuge of the disturbing in the upbeat with the brass-laden Foreign Object (“One of these days my legs will both snap like twigs, if you can’t beat ’em make ’em bleed like pigs”).

After this, a short break for the rest of the band while Darnielle took up the acoustic guitar for a short solo set going back through some of his earliest work – recorded on tape and with endearingly awful production value – which still draws the crowd closer. In this man’s music and lyrics hides the legacy of a strange and often hard life, but he still finds time for the crowd pleasers – the oddity that is ‘Thank You Mario But Our Princess is in Another Castle’, introduced with a long, rambling, and well-rehearsed monologue about the titular plumber’s life.

The temperature duly raised and the audience bathed in nostalgia, the band returned for the best-known classics. The offbeat folk theme gave way to the positively rocky ‘The Diaz Brothers’, iconic ‘Game Shows Touch Our Lives’ and solemn ‘Damn These Vampires’. By the time we hit the final stretch, ‘This Year’ – perhaps the Mountain Goats’ best known song, and with good reason – felt almost like a relief.

The collective outpouring of energy was for many more like a religious experience than a simple song. By the time the bridge hit – “Locking eyes, holding hands, twin high maintenance machines” – the mass of humanity filling the converted church was pressed together, eyes forward, watching John Darnielle bouncing around the stage, not so much as an instrument in hand, and treating it as the greatest moment of their lives. To sing louder or with more enthusiasm would have been physically draining.

After a skin-flaying ovation that eventually yielded an encore, the one stumble of the night came with ‘Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan’, another tune from Beat the Champ, but one more akin to beat poetry than a foot-stamping anthem to see us home. It got better, though, and was almost forgotten by the time of ‘No Children’, a heart-on-the-sleeve ballad dedicated to honesty in the face of pain, rejection and anger. It couldn’t be a stranger or more warming sight than hundreds of strangers, fists in the air, pouring their essence into the lines “I am drowning, there is no sign of land, you are coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand”.

There were tears in eyes and adrenaline pumping by the time the lights came up. As the fans piled out of the club, I wondered whether passersby wouldn’t think the place still served religious purposes. The grins, and the camaraderie, and sense of revelation were palpable. Disappearing into a cold southwestern night were people whose experience would little move those outside, but which to them meant the world. The Mountain Goats may only write music you listen to while you save your own life – but there are few better soundtracks for it.

Words by Robin Wilde

Jess is your Deputy Editor

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