“This is a story about a couple of people in bad shape,” said John Darnielle on the stage of the Somerville Theatre Wednesday night, “and they’re gonna stay that way.”
Then, as Darnielle, who was in town playing a solo show under the Mountain Goats moniker, struck the first chords of “Have to Explode,” the audience — a sold out crowd of folks in bad shape — boiled into a resounding cheer.
Darnielle began the evening unceremoniously, puttering on the stage with his jeans cuffed halfway up his shins, a bucket of college hair poured over his head. Blazered and coy, he came out looking a like he had lost his keys. However, as he approached the mic and lifted his face to give a signature small-mouthed smile, the crowd became a cacophony of exalt and shitty puns. Our everyman hero had arrived.
Without the backing of his normal co-conspirators Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster, Darnielle proceeded with uncharacteristic focus. Though he usually rambles liner notes between songs, Darnielle’s began his set with unusual fluidity (he would later explain that this meant that he was “feeling the music”). This part of the performance was strikingly intimate — the lack of crowd interaction gave the feeling that we were watching Darnielle in his home running through a set list without the weight of appraisal.
[pullquote align=”right”]For those trying to sing along, Darnielle’s ad libbing made keeping up even more awkward — though, in a Mountain Goats crowd, awkwardness is the norm.[/pullquote]His fingers studied the guitar furiously as he jutted between his three or four characteristic voices, unexpectedly going off canon from a tender near-whisper to a paranoid, tremolo-ravaged yelp in “San Bernardino.” The consonance was welcomingly disarming. For those trying to sing along, Darnielle’s ad libbing made keeping up even more awkward — though, in a Mountain Goats crowd, awkwardness is the norm.
Opener Erin McKeown was a perfect complement to Darnielle’s set. With her sharp grin and Kathleen Madigan affect, she charmed us out of our uncertainties by making us sing harmonies well out of our range and breath. It was fine. Par for the course, really. As she strummed drifter chords much larger than her guitar, we knew to expect things to be remarkably alright in spite of the fact that we hardly ever felt that way. When she joined Darnielle on stage late in his set, flubbing the closing lines of a verse, there was no need for apology or recovery. We were all right there together.
This is why we love John Darnielle. Not because he is perfect or because he inspires us to be so, but because he embodies imperfection so adroitly. With his fidgety, dad-like mannerisms and apical voice, he is the perfect totem of our own insecurities, worn well and in full glory. As he sweetly sang about Lon Cheney, Jr., and Black Sabbath, we were rapt by his unflinching disregard for what it means to be sweet. There were no hang-ups about messy divorces or fragmented finances or the fact that it’s a bit of a cliché to begin a show review with a quote from the performer.
It’s why we smiled to each other as Darnielle irreparably fucked up the voice on the keyboard during the first song in the encore — a rendition of a children’s song about the boons of being a pig. “Adults spend a lot of time trying not to look silly,” he said leading into the song, “and it’s a tremendous waste of energy.”
For that, there were more cheers. And even more as he bowed and the echoes of “No Children” and it’s insane, broken chorus of “I hope you die/I hope we both die” were eaten by the rising din. We cheered because, for the hour and a half Darnielle was on stage, it felt like the meek had truly inherited the Earth, and we knew we could still be poets even with razor blades for a voice and a set of narrow, failing eyes.
At the end of the night, with hollers and boots rattling the floorboards of the delicate old theatre, it seemed like our scrawny souls were all part of the same lovably phobic continuum, and so we clapped, hand against unlovable hand.