When The Mountain Goats last visited Brighton, in 2015, it turned out to be a fun, if predictable, night. “We all knew what was going to happen,” said our reviewer at the time. “We all went along with it… and went home smiling.”
This time round the band’s gig is full of surprises, and not all of them are fun. For a start, there’s no band. Though it was advertised as a full show, what we get tonight is a duo: singer and guitarist John Darnielle is joined on stage by relatively recent newcomer Matt Douglas. We assume the rest of the band will be brought on later for dramatic effect, but by the time we realise that’s not happening we’ve happily settled into the sound of the two-piece.
The first third of the set is a magpie collection of songs from Darnielle’s huge repertoire, stretching back 15 years to include low-key opener ‘Have To Explode’ and the strangely uplifting 2005 ballad ‘You Or Your Memory’. By this point Matt Douglas has already proved his worth as a supportive multi-instrumentalist, switching from guitar to Fender Rhodes and back again (he later takes up the flute, and even drops some tasteful sax into the mix).
After half a dozen tracks Douglas is gone, leaving Darnielle on stage for a solo section which begins with a song he wrote for his kid. Having asked the audience to put away their phones and instructed us to physically restrain any potential bootleggers from committing it into the public domain, he treats us to a ditty about dancing with a draft excluder snake. It’s endearing to get a glimpse into the singer’s parental life, though there’s a touch of cognitive dissonance in hearing such a distinctive voice singing songs so silly. It sounds just like a Mountain Goats number, perhaps one from an obscure early album you never got round to listening to.
The contrast is notable only because the lyrics that drive the bulk of the songs we hear tonight are so articulate. Darnielle released his second novel this year, and no career move has ever felt more natural. His rich depictions of details are often provocative or intriguing, even when the general gist of a song is sometimes left hanging. In ‘The Grey King And The Silver Flame Attunement’, a newish song with a comically overblown title, he recalls seeing a car full of teenagers stopping alongside him at a traffic light. The driver, an alpha goth in mirror shades, turns to the singer and smiles, revealing “Teeth filed down to fine points”. The song concludes with a refrain that forms an unlikely audience chorus: “I’m pretty hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore.”
We’re already straining to catch the lyrics when a big overhead air ventilator starts chugging noisily. It quickly gets annoying, but the bar staff find a way to switch it off in time for the last run of songs. That’s when Darnielle realises he’s forgotten his chords and sends Douglas offstage to find his backpack. The hapless sidekick returns empty-handed saying he doesn’t know the code to the venue’s greenroom. All at once the pair are cast in the roles of a comedy double act, and the audience is rather enjoying their cock-up.
However, as soon as they get underway their set is sabotaged once more by the ventilator on the ceiling. This time it’s leaking a stream of mysterious fluid onto the heads of the tightly packed punters. We’ve never seen The Haunt this busy and there’s nowhere for people to go. Turning it back on seems to stop the seepage and we’re all able to relax into the final songs of the night.
Given that it was featured on an episode of The Walking Dead, closing with ‘Up The Wolves’ seems like an admission of where the band’s recent spike in popularity has come from. Either that or it’s just a great song. In any case, it doesn’t stop there. After leaving the stage and prompting a proper fuss from the audience, the duo return for a single-song encore.
‘No Children’ is a rousing but dysfunctional romantic anthem during which Darnielle goes walkabout in crowd. All night we’ve been stuck to the spot by the sheer number of bodies squeezed in front of the stage, but now, suddenly, a space emerges around the singer. Darnielle wheels around among his fans, letting them carry the vocals. The 2015 show ended in the same way with the same song. Sometimes predictable is fun. Let’s just hope they can fill a bigger and better venue next time they come to town.
The Haunt, Thursday 12th October 2017
Words by Ben Bailey