I wish I was articulate enough to tell you about this show by The Mountain Goats and make you feel like you were there. To make you feel what I felt.
If only I had the words to describe the unique texture and sound of John Darnielle's voice. Or even if I could use words like John does, as he introduced almost every song and made it come to life. It didn't matter if the song was about something as trivial as a computer game or as heartbreaking as the first morning after a break up - he engaged the audience as though it was both important that they understood what they were about to hear and also that they were entertained and amused by his dry wit and somewhat self-depreciating humor.
What I can do is tell you about the venue, which was The People Palace up near Leidseplein under the Tommy Hilfiger building. Not only was this the first show I had ever attended here, it was the first time I had even noticed the place, despite walking right past it at least 100 times over the past few years. It is a fantastic little venue with a first class bar and lounge at the front, a down stairs section with ad hoc seating and a giant column in the middle of the room. And a small upstairs balcony section which is where we would enjoy a great view this evening.
I could also tell you about Allessi’s Ark, who were the support band on the night, but I would rather not as I don’t really have much nice to say about them. Allesi did have a lovely voice but all I can say is that I hope they watched the next performance and took some notes on how to propel your performance from stage out to the crowd and in general how to entertain them. If the main idea of a support band is to warm up the audience, I for one was left a little cold.
I am a reasonably new member to the Mountain Goat’s relatively small but exceedingly fanatical fan base. Despite knowing their name for a long time it was only their most recent album, Transcendental Youth, that brought me into the fold and I was surprised to learn that this was in fact their 14th album. Needless to say the setlist covered a lot of material that I was not familiar with but this didn’t take away from the show at all.
Almost all songs were preceded with elaborate introductions, usually quite humorous and at times longer than the song itself. What this did, perhaps better than any band I have ever seen before, was draw in each member of the, admittedly quite small, audience and have them engaged in every song that was played.
Their live songs are not particularly complex or loud from a musical perspective, given it is only John on acoustic guitar and sometimes piano and Peter Hughes on bass guitar. And I can imagine that at times this can make live shows hard to play over a rowdy crowd. Similar to the Billy Bragg approach, I sensed that they played the ballads with some trepidation and were quick to jump back into something faster and punchier to keep people’s attention.
But I think on this night it was an unfounded worry, all parts of the audience seemed to be whisper quiet from where we were sitting. And I think this was a source of great enjoyment for the band and John in particular who seemed to relax and enjoy himself more and more as the night went on. By the end he even joked that we had been such a great crowd we should all exchange phone numbers and go and see more shows together.
It is impossible to describe this show to people who do not have an appreciation for live music beyond flashing lights, stage shows and singing along to your favorite songs. Not that there is anything wrong with those things and they can be great, but to me this was live music almost at its best.
It was night that took me somewhere new and had me sitting on a stool drinking red wine from a real wine glass, a long way from the usual plastic cups of beer on the sticky back steps of the Paradiso that I love so much. Each story brought a smile to my face and each song had me listening intensely to clever lyrics, interesting character and catchy hooks.
I left with a feeling of joy from what I had just witnessed and felt a bond with those who I witnessed it with, because I knew we had seen something special. And best of all, I left with an excitement for 13 other albums worth of material that I can now explore, knowing I will be finding things that are new and also reminders that can take me back and let me enjoy this night all over again.