John Darnielle came back for a "bonus track" Saturday night at the Cedar, the sold-out house cheering him on after a rousing version of "This Year" had finished the first encore. When he returned alone to the stage, the mastermind behind the Mountain Goats chose to play the Hold Steady's "Positive Jam," even though he couldn't remember how the song went.
Playing a song by the local favorites was more than a gimmick on Darnielle's part. For the better part of two hours, he and his North Carolina ensemble had held the audience captive. Now, as he fumbled through one last number, laughing and debating the lyrics with the front row, it was an opportunity for his fans to join in the fun.
Not that they hadn't been in on the fun to begin with. Throughout the night, Darnielle bantered frequently between songs, at times explaining their origins and at others spinning non sequiturs around them. He spoke with a self-deprecating sense of humor, jokingly referring to the seriousness of his musical narratives as "tawdry" and wryly introducing one of his songs by saying, "Here's another lovely little number about terminal illness and other things that won't go away...."
Indeed, the Mountain Goats' work often details tales of spiritual emptiness and everyday grotesquerie, littered with drug addicts, broken marriages, and biblical disasters. Yet Darnielle's stage presence, and the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into the music, helped emphasize the compassion with which he approaches his characters, and the optimism and humor inherent in his band's work.
As the band worked through the early numbers, including opener "1 Samuel 15:23" from the recent The Life of the World to Come and the older "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod," Darnielle seemed deep in thought. The bespectacled songwriter's brow was often furrowed and his eyes closed, alternately spitting out the lyrics and delivering them in hushed tones, carefully considering every syllable. The music was crisp and energetic, though the rest of the band played supporting roles, Peter Hughes' bass drifting on whole notes in the background while Jon Wurster's drum washes filled out the edges.
Midway through the set, the other three band members left the stage and Darnielle was joined on violin by Final Fantasy's Owen Pallett, who was the opening act. The audience was respectfully silent, hanging on the singer's every word as the people up front crowded in closely along the edge of the stage during "Genesis 30:3."
This solemn interlude had a cathartic effect, the full band returning for raucous versions of "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" and "Going to Bristol" that were torn through with more verve than at any point previously. Darnielle flailed about the stage, swinging his arms out and smiling broadly while the audience, newly emboldened, shouted out requests and sang along.
By the time the Mountain Goats launched into "This Year," the song's joyously ringing chords and bloody-minded chorus sounded every bit the celebration of ordinary love and hardships that it was intended to be.