Just before the Mountain Goats took the stage at Castaways in Ithaca, N.Y. on Saturday, things started to seem more like a heavy metal concert than the anticipated indie rock show.
After two teenage girls shoved their way to the front of the crowd and upset one particular woman who wouldn't tolerate being pushed aside, the scene almost turned ugly. But when the lights dimmed, the heated argument was drowned out as the cheering audience's applause faltered at the unexpected sound of distorted electric guitars and the clashing of frantic drumbeats. Could this be right?
There was no sign that anything was out of the ordinary during the opening act, a folk rock band called Megafaun best known for its collaborations with fellow Eau Claire, Wis. native Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The identically bespectacled brothers Brad and Phil Cook on guitar and banjo, respectively, along with drummer Joe Westerlund proved to be more than capable of holding their own in front of a crowd.
Besides a Dylan-worthy harmonica performance on "Volunteers," the highlight of Megafaun's set was when it got the entire audience to sing along with the chorus of "Worried Mind," – in three-part harmony, nonetheless.
After Megafaun left the stage though, the dance floor began to look like it was about to be transformed into a mosh pit. Luckily, just when the rowdy audience was about to become a serious concern, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats ran onstage with his guitar in hand, and he and the band immediately started playing the song "Liza Forever Minnelli" off their most recent album All Eternals Deck.
With 13 albums of recorded material totaling more than 400 tracks and 16 years of virtually non-stop tours, it was easy to understand why Darnielle had to apologize for not being able to recall all the songs on the set list. His memory seemed to be working better than he claimed that evening, however, or else he is as talented at improvising as he is at composing the wonderfully quirky poetry of the original lyrics.
Solo performances are an expected part of the Mountain Goats' shows, so it was no surprise when the rest of the band members took a short break while Darnielle entertained the crowd by himself with songs about everything from heroin addicts and Catholic angst to "the transformative, redeeming power of all the things you're not supposed to do when you're a teenager." In his words, "there are some great truths to be found in the back of a Honda Civic."
The Mountain Goats tried to end the show with "No Children" from their album Tallahassee, which Darnielle said was "ultimately a love song." The audience shouted exuberantly along with the chorus of "I hope you die, I hope we both die" and refused to let the band leave without an encore.
To please the crowd, Darnielle called the members from Megafaun up onto the stage to join them for the final song of the evening, "This Year." The concert ended with everybody resolving at the top of their lungs to make it through the year, even if it killed them.