Photos and reporting contributed by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank.
For the Mountain Goats, a concert in Portland is like a hometown show. Although he almost died of a drug overdose when he lived in the City of Roses in the 1980s, lead singer and songwriter John Darnielle still ended the show by saying “I will always love this city.” Darnielle used his negative memories of Portland as an influence for the group’s recently released 16th studio album, “Goths.” During his June 4 show at the Crystal Ballroom, he and the band turned the music into a joyous affair, with Darnielle exploring the depths of his musical archive with a new, welcomed jazz vibe.
Despite the band’s musical prowess and classy suits, Darnielle bared all on stage. He performed with an untucked undershirt, without shoes and unabashedly relied on sheet music that never seemed to be in the right place. The first third of the show largely featured material from “Goths.” The new songs carry an emphasis on the group’s music, rather than just Darnielle’s lyrics, which allowed drummer Jon Wurster to play with free-flowing force. Bassist Peter Hughes and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas also added their characteristic flourishes in each song.
Before “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement,” Darnielle told the story of how he once passed a Pontiac that “was probably cool at the time” on the highway in West Covina, California. The driver was joined by three women. The driver smiled at Darnielle, revealing that his teeth were sharpened into vampire fangs. Having come out of a recent vampire phase himself, Darnielle realized that maybe he was not as hardcore as he once thought.
Alone on stage, Darnielle played a handful of acoustic songs without prior planning. Whatever audience request sounded best to Darnielle made its way into the set, including “So Desperate,” “Trans-Jordanian Blues” and “Song For My Stepfather.”
Darnielle was relaxed, happy and energetic all night. He routinely jumped around the stage, willed the crowd to sing along and high-fived fans near the front of the stage. The band fed off his energy and delivered an emotionally draining but elated set.
The Mountain Goats ended with two encores that encompassed Darnielle’s emotional range as an artist: first the live-through-this anthem “This Year” and the uncontested best divorce song ever written, “No Children.” As dire as it may sound, it was with fervor that Darnielle sang to the audience (who screamed right back), “I hope you die. I hope we both die.” Nowhere else do death and divorce sound so charming.