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Choosing The Quiet Ones

Written by on May 16, 2022

The Mountain Goats @ The Regent [4/28/22]

Photos by Ethan Guffey

On a cloudy Thursday night, The Regent was transported back to 2005: the floor filled with hipsters, adorned with neckbeards and mustaches. Beanies topped their heads and graphic tees proudly exhibited art of various indie bands and niche media references. The women wore black chokers, the men’s hair was tied in buns, all wore a uniform of flannel.

Though their fashion choices may not have aged, the past two decades revealed themselves upon inspection; wrinkled faces smiled, down below, New Balance sneakers covered feet that undoubtedly once exclusively wore Doctor Martens and Converse. Notably, while the majority of fans were in their late 30s, the crowd ranged from a 12 year old accompanied by their father, eager to be towards the front, all the way to a seemingly eighty-year-old, sitting in a wheelchair at one of the tables near the bar. None of them seemed to mind as strange instrumental music filled the hall before the opener took the stage. Instead, they just chatted comfortably with their friends and partners; this was no first date kind of concert.

I first got into The Mountain Goats during the early stage of the pandemic, delving into the band’s early 2000s albums, like The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee. I found comfort in frontman John Darnielle’s pointed lyricism and weighty story-telling. As I stood in the crowd, though, I felt like a fake fan.  I knew I could not name most songs from the band’s 20 album, 27 year run, a fact that seemed especially sacrilegious in a group where the biggest insult would be to be called a poser. 

My tension eased, however, as the opener took the stage; she was a new face for most of the crowd as well. Cardioid, led by Lizzy Ellison and backed up by just a bassist and drummer, appeared nervous as they played their first few songs. “This is my first time touring since 2019 and this is the biggest show I’ve ever played,” explained Ellison, as she tuned her guitar. 

As she continued, her demeanor relaxed, but Ellison’s voice kept a tension that made her performance striking, as she pleaded and wailed her lyrics. “You are too mighty/What will I do when life is through?” she asked the crowd in her song “Fingernails”. The audience fed off her emotional appeals, responding with cheers and more energetic head bobs and knee bounces.

Ellison finished her set by revealing that this was her first time playing lead guitar while performing which explained away some of the more stilted transitions. Even during times of hesitancy though, Cardioid’s awkward moments gave the band an endearing and refreshing punch. 

Ellison’s inexperience sharply juxtaposed John Darnielle and his band, all of whom walked onstage with the confidence of having done so hundreds of times before, accompanied by the crowd’s thunderous applause. Fittingly having set Los Angeles as the first stop on their tour, Darnielle plopped down at his keyboard and began to pluck out the first notes of “We Do It Different on the West Coast.” 

When he got up, he swung his guitar on easily and marched around the stage holding it almost like a weapon in battle. He belted his lyrics forcefully, audible even further from the mic, consistently shaking out his shaggy haircut throughout the set. Though Darnielle, with his awkward head bobs and substitute-teacher aesthetic, lacks the too-cool carelessness of the typical rock band’s frontman, he commanded the stage in a way I had never seen before. 

As he moved back and forth, his interaction focused heavily on the members of his band, yet as an audience member, the crowd couldn’t help but be engaged. This felt especially poignant when the band exited and Darnielle moved into his more obscure discography. Though it was clear most of the crowd did not know the lyrics, they watched patiently and attentively as he sang with a quality that he was conjuring up his hyper-specific, imagery-based lyrics on the spot. At one point, Darnielle even debated with himself which song to pick next, entirely unswayed by the audience’s requests for his most popular tracks. 

The setlist ranged from the band’s 2021 album, Dark in Here, all the way to tracks from Darnielle’s earliest days. When he began strumming the first chords of “Genesis 3:23,” he had to stop abruptly — “It’s been years since I’ve played this song. I’m gonna need the lyrics.” Darnielle then took an audience member’s phone, propping it up on the keyboard stand to read off of. As he sang, he extended his arm out over the crowd, reaching as if he saw something far beyond the crowded space of the venue.

Darnielle’s performance at times felt like an intrusion upon his own emotional catharsis, but when he turned his attention to the crowd, he made it clear he was happy we were there. He joked between sets, telling stories from tours long ago and from earlier that day as he traveled around Los Angeles. The audience remained just as enthralled during these breaks as when the music played. A devout fanbase, they did not mind that The Mountain Goats clearly played for themselves, choosing the songs most poignant for them at that moment in time, which leaned toward the quiet and reflective. 

Their patience was rewarded during the last portion of the concert. Immediately as the first chord is struck of “No Children,” the crowd began to scream along. They outpaced Darnielle’s own singing, but he did not mind, smiling as The Regent filled clearly with voices for the first time of the night. 

I was sure of an encore, as the crowd’s energy peaked so high, but I was surprised when the encore turned into four songs, all of which rounded out The Mountain Goats’ five most popular songs (at least according to Spotify streams) — it seems that even John Darnielle, assured in his preference for his “quiet ones” couldn’t resist some crowd pleasers. The concert wrapped up with “This Year,” a song that, despite its 2005 release, could not feel any more timely. The Mountain Goats smiled wide, assured in the kind of band they are and the kind of show they perform: one that rouses the crowd to sing along, “I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me.”

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