The Mountain Goats are perhaps little known to most this side of the Pond, but whenever prolific singer-songwriter John Darnielle and his band set foot in the UK, venues fill up fast with dedicated fans who probably know his vast back catalogue better than he does.
The sold-out Brudenell is no exception, and the warm appreciation is mutual, Darnielle hailing it as “one of the best clubs in the world”.
And the Mountain Goats, 15-album veterans of the US musical underground, are themselves fascinated by the kind of cult fandom that makes teenage (and adult) life more bearable. Latest album Beat The Champ was inspired by Darnielle’s childhood obsession with pro-wrestling and its heroes and villains, and it brings their stories to life with compassion and wit.
The band began life in 1991 with Darnielle thrashing out ultra lo-fi acoustic folk-punk songs into a home tape deck, teeming with bleakly funny lyrics about his fellow outsiders and misfits. These days they’ve matured into a full-grown band, with dapper bassist Peter Hughes and dextrous drummer Jon Wurster now joined by multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas. This musical sophistication doesn’t dull the raw edges and energy of the songs though, like the gleeful vengeance of Foreign Object or the mutually-assured marital destruction of No Children.
Things get more fragile mid-set when Darnielle plays solo, and has a lump in his throat dedicating a song to the teacher who gave him sanctuary during his troubled early years, who died this week. It’s a reminder that behind the crafted one-liners and sharp storytelling, his gift is turning the raw and the personal into something universal. It’s a gift that pays off in full when the entire audience roars the defiant “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” chorus of This Year, transforming a harrowing tale into a life-affirming anthem. Though his songs may be full of memorable characters, unlike the wrestling baddies he sings about in Heel Turn 2 John Darnielle is not a performer who hides behind a mask. Which must make him one of the good guys.