John Darnielle is a storyteller. He sets the scene with an antiquated wrestling announcement and a ten-bell salute, before breaking into the quiet atmosphere of the Brudenell Social Club with the rolling opening notes of ‘Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan’. From his latest album Beat the Champ, this song tells the tale of the stabbing of professional wrestler Bruiser Brody. Although it seems strange to have the soft indie folk sound of the Mountain Goats applied to the world of 1970s wrestling, the shoe fits – Darnielle has a tension in his voice as he sings of the heroes and villains of the ring, and takes time before songs such as ‘Heel Turn 2’ to explain the details of the sport to us. Despite having no interest in professional wrestling, Darnielle’s pure joy in singing about it, throwing his head back as he plays piano, grabs my attention and makes these new songs just as compelling as any other. Earlier the support act The Weather Station brought a pleasant Stevie Nicks-esque sound to the Brudenell’s comfortable setting, but the Mountain Goats play with an energy that blows them out of the water.
The Mountain Goats hadtheir beginnings in John Darnielle’s extensive solo lo-fi tape recordings and I was concerned at first that their live sound would lack the raw power of earlier songs such as ‘Going to Georgia’. But the transition from record to concert leaves me more than satisfied – flutes, trumpets and an accordion create beautiful melodies over Darnielle’s guitar, breathing new life into the songs as his frantic vocals weave the lyrics that have earned him the title of “the greatest storyteller in rock”. Who else could make an uplifting folk refrain out of “Hail Satan!”?
Eventually, the main band leave the stage, leaving Darnielle alone with the audience. He takes a fan request for old obscurity ‘Soft Targets’ before playing ‘Shadow Song’ in honour of an old friend that had passed that day. Although sombre, the performance is comforting, not draining. He then plays ‘Steal Smoked Fish’ before the rest of the Mountain Goats return triumphantly to play Beat the Champ opener ‘Southwestern Territory’. The ensuing songs are a series of enthusiastic older hits. The Brudenell is a relaxed setting, with as many of the audience sitting down as they are standing, but the response remains intense. The band’s energy soars with that of the crowd, powering through ‘Damn These Vampires’ like the well-oiled machine they are.
I had to leave the venue early, and so tragically missed the encore. But the Mountain Goats play me out to fan favourite ‘This Year’, leaning and shouting ecstatically into the crowd, and things are left on the highest note possible.By Jowan Mead