Like Sarah, I was fortunate enough to catch the Mountain Goats and Megafaun last week. She wrote a great review. You should read it. Right now. I’ll wait.
That’s pretty much what happened at the show I saw in Atlanta last Thursday night. There were a few differences — for example, I’m pretty sure the Variety Playhouse is half the size of the Vic, so I found Megafaun to be transcendently delightful, as Sarah noted at the end of her review — but the overall deal was close enough that I wouldn’t be saying anything new if I wrote about the show I saw. Sarah also knows their catalog much, much better than I do; because of that, the show wasn’t a must-see for me, but instead a “hey, they’re playing when I’ll be in Atlanta, I love the Variety Playhouse, it’s the night before my birthday, that would make a nice present for myself” show. I’ve been listening closely for about two months and I’m barely scratching the surface.
So: if you want a more objective review, Sarah’s is great and I highly recommend it. As a Mountain Goats neophyte, I’m going to take a different route that gets more personal. Fair warning.
I know you’re probably here for music talk, and that’s why I’m here, too, even if I’ve been quiet in the last couple of weeks. But I’m sure you know how it is when things get overwhelming. In the last two months I’ve found out about graduate school admissions decisions, I’ve decided where I’m attending and thus where I’ll be moving in August, I’ve started purging my apartment of stuff that won’t be moving with me, I’ve dealt with some health issues, I’ve watched political theater in Washington, D.C., and I’ve thought some about an ex. In last week’s field trip to Atlanta, my parents and I started having the conversations about the location and uses of some of their financial and legal arrangements, just in case. In short, there are a lot of changes going on, they’re not all pleasant, and that’s not going to stop any time soon. If nothing else, I’ve got to keep my increasingly soul-sucking day job — which has nothing to do with music — until August, when I’m off to move to a place I’ve never been before to do things at which I’m pretty out of practice. There are too many answers I don’t have and too many things I can’t fix right now, and I don’t like it.
And while all that’s been going on, in the background I have been communing with the Mountain Goats in preparation for that show at the Variety Playhouse. Me and John Darnielle at my desk, with his nasal falsetto and his metered sucker-punch lyrics and his shreddy guitar playing.
Before I left for Atlanta, I’d already been thinking about the value of revisiting the kinds of albums that we do some growing up alongside, to see if our perception of them changes as we change. (One of my coping mechanisms at work is sticking Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apocrypha on repeat; I’ve been having some thoughts about the album lately.) And here is John Darnielle, writing a lot about growing up and getting out. I’ve been thinking about an ex; here is John Darnielle with “No Children”. I’ve been watching the political theater surrounding the federal budget and its threat to Planned Parenthood, when next year I’ll likely need Planned Parenthood for basic preventative care; here is John Darnielle talking with Mother Jones about women’s rights and access to health care. I’ve been adjusting myself to the notion of moving back to the South after I moved to Colorado to get away; here is John Darnielle with “Heretic Pride”. My current job is draining, everything is changing, everyone is getting older, and here is John Darnielle with a proto–It Gets Better Project, saying that I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.
In other words, sometimes we find the things we need when we need them.
It was a real joy to go back to the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta; it may be my favorite venue anywhere. It smells like an ice rink. It’s not too big, not too small. You can stand up front, you can sit in the back, you can sit on one of the risers at the sides at a table, you can sit in the balcony and put your feet up — something for everyone. It’s in one of my favorite downtown neighborhoods, perfect for general concert pregaming and lolligagging around. I got to watch the show from the lowest riser on the right, against the wall at my own table, with an unobstructed view the whole time, and great sound. It was downright civilized — which was pretty great. Sometimes you just don’t feel like dealing with the crush of people up front, and the Variety’s always good for accommodating that.
At my table, I wrote this in my notebook before the show, meaning to turn it into a post later:
In listening to John Darnielle, both his music and on Twitter, I’ve found good work for rough times. I’ve found unrelenting optimism when I’ve desperately needed it. I’ve found an ally when the news implies I have none. I’m not just talking about the music, either. Darnielle is a vocal supporter of women’s rights, and right now that matters to me. One of the most vital functions of music for me, and I’d guess for a lot of people, is its ability to make us feel as though we have allies, as though we are not alone. As I keep listening, and thinking about what I listen to, it’s getting increasingly important to me that artists I champion — and I use that word deliberately — are allies off the stage as well as on it.
I can like a song, and I can like an album, and I can and do plug good work regardless of an artist’s personal politics. But that deeper connection to their music, the kind that inspires me to research and delve and find out as much as possible about their work with all the logic and passion I can muster, only comes when I find things that convince me those artists are likely to have my back, politically speaking.
And John Darnielle, in his support for women’s rights, and human rights, has my back. That’s ultimately why I’m at the Variety Playhouse tonight. I feel the same way about Andrew Bird (see this post for one reason why); once upon a time I felt the same way about Wilco. It’s entirely possible that I won’t feel the same way about any of these artists in five years — and that’s okay.
What I’ve finally had the time and space to realize this week in Atlanta is that it’s not the future we should be afraid of, it’s stagnation. There’s nothing wrong with going back to the music we’ve loved for years and listening to it as the people we are now, rather than who we used to be.
Right now music isn’t my day job — but in August, that’s going to change. (It won’t be everything I’m going to do, but one reason I picked my particular program at my particular university is that there aren’t many places better for studying American popular music, past and present.) And one of the things I’m going to be looking at in depth is how politics affected and continue to affect music. Some of the things I’m going to have to sort out are my opinions on how politics should affect music. And one of the things I’m scared of is that learning to be a better critic will kill my ability to react to particularly excellent music with literal feetkicking glee, as I did with “Family Happiness” last Thursday night.
And while I lived in my head for a lot of that show — from the distance I was to the stage, John Darnielle looks unnervingly like the ex I’d been thinking about — I wasn’t there the whole time. There was “Family Happiness”; there was the track that didn’t make it on The Sunset Tree, “Song for my Stepfather”, there was “Palmcorder Yajna”, and there was “This Year”. The frenetic depth of emotion on display did wonders for me. Eventually I was able to let a lot of stuff go in favor of letting the music in, which is something I haven’t been able to do in several months.
We all bellowed along with “This Year”. It felt like a covenant I made with five hundred strangers, which made us friends. And I listened to it on repeat all the way home — my parents’ house in the suburbs, not Denver. Somewhere on I-75, and it may well have been right as I passed the Big Chicken, I turned another year older, and the song became a covenant with myself, too.
Megafaun was great. (“His Robe” goes over particularly well in a small room in front of a mostly Southern audience — we’re more likely to get the visual references involved in the band’s monkeying around on stage like televangelists.) The Mountain Goats were phenomenal. And next time I see them, I’m going to know a lot more of the catalog so I can get more out of it besides an emotional recharge to help me face down the next four months. Pretty sure that’s still going to happen, though. I’ve got a feeling the Mountain Goats are going to be a band I follow for a long time to come, no matter what I wind up discovering or how my opinions change.
There are no concrete or easy answers, but in the meantime there are songs about Tolstoy and vampires and stuff to help us cope. I can live with that, happily. Thanks, Mountain Goats.