The Mountain Goats (John Darnielle solo) @ Ruby Lounge, Manchester 11/10/09

October 12, 2009

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John Darnielle is not a rock star.  Bespectacled, middle-aged, unrepentantly unremarkable in appearance, he has forged his reputation without recourse to fancy tricks.  He’s not even a great musician – his guitar style is very simple, he misses chord changes, his piano-playing is far from flub-free.  No, the reason Darnielle has a sold out Ruby Lounge singing almost every word of most of his songs back at him is the quality of his writing.

Once he twigs that his devotees can sing Up The Wolves just as well as he can, he laughs, pulls away from he mic and lets them do it.  Afterwards, smiling, he says, ‘I used to dream that maybe if I became a good songwriter, British people would sing my song back to me in a pub’.

Obviously whip-smart, Darnielle’s frenetic rhythm guitar and intensely rapped vocal is matched by a hugely enjoyable line in banter. Tonight, he fits in plenty of older numbers for the hardcore fans, as well as a selection from the excellent new album, The Light of the World to Come.  His total command of his audience means he’s able to deliver the brilliant, high-tempo relationship-breakdown blast No Children alongside the difficult, tender, genuinely moving Matthew 25:21, a song that manages to address losing a loved one to cancer without sounding trite, histrionic or schmaltzy.  This song, more than any other aired tonight, reveals the depth of intelligence and emotion behind the writing.

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Darnielle’s more extrovert, splenetic side is hugely entertaining and has gained him his ultra-loyal band of followers, but the sheer class of the songwriting on Life of the World to Come serves notice that he is an artist in his prime, deserving of a much wider following.  For now though, it’s just extremely encouraging to see such a literate, unconventional and brave songwriter connecting with a fanbase that makes up its lack of numbers with the bookish ardour of its faith.

After another song is delivered back to Darnielle by the fans without a missed lyric, he stops and says, ‘you guys are obviously way awesome’.

It could have been stagecraft, but I think he genuinely meant it.

Link to free mp3 download of Genesis 3:23 from the new album – which could well the best free download anyone gives you this year.

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