May 23, 2005

Mountain Goats thrill devotees by remaining true to the same old sound

It's somewhat amazing that the so-called "Mountain Goats" have been getting away with this for so long. It's been nearly 15 years since John Darnielle first started recording under the moniker, releasing a slew of cassette albums recorded with only an acoustic guitar and a boom box. Since then, Darnielle's aesthetic has evolved, favoring a cleaner and occasionally orchestral sound on recent releases. However, his emphasis still clearly remains with the lyrics on which the Goats built their reputation; Darnielle's literate yet quirky journeys through the fantastically mundane and his markedly nasal delivery have become something of a trademark.

When the Mountain Goats trotted into town two Fridays ago in support of their new record, The Sunset Tree, the packed Logan Square Auditorium made it quite apparent that the Goats had outgrown their usual venue of choice, the Empty Bottle. Onstage, Darnielle and current touring partner Peter Hughes were right at home—taking swigs from a flask of whiskey, telling jokes that were funny only to them, and ripping through song after song with surprising energy.

The Goats have always inspired an unusually devoted following, who sift through the band's ridiculously large catalog as if it were a holy duty. The fans, too, were in rare form, hanging on Darnielle's every word and relishing the opportunity to shout out as many requests as possible between songs (few of which were heeded). While old favorites were certainly greeted with the requisite amount of enthusiasm, it was the newer songs that really popped onstage. The steady "Color in Your Cheeks" and the bouncy confessional of "Dance Music" both inspired more nodding—and even dancing—than two dudes with guitars can usually manage to instigate. "Lion's Teeth" proved to be a particular treat, sounding twice as urgent as on the record, even without the aid of a full band. "There's no good way to end this/ Anyone can see," Darnielle sneered into the mic, retelling the story of an encounter with a lion in a parked car.

While the Goats certainly did their part to keep the crowd's interest, by show's end, the proceedings had become slightly tedious—if only because of the musical sameness that permeates many of the band's songs. Still, you would never know it by surveying the sea of captivated hipsters. That's the funny thing about devotion: It rarely makes sense from the outside.