The Mountain Goats fully assemble for an elevated, expressive set at The Fillmore - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

John Darnielle’s three-decades-running project The Mountain Goats has gone through many iterations and variations in its lifespan so far, and for many die-hards, the purest way to see them is solo: Darnielle alone, the way he toured for the first decade and some of his career — and the way he orbited Philly this autumn with shows in Wilmington, Lancaster, and Bethlehem.

But seeing the fully-assembled Mountain Goats take the stage at The Fillmore Philly on Tuesday was a shining example why Darnielle playing frontperson instead of only-person is just as crucial a way to experience his songwriting. The point was hammered home just three songs into the show.

We’d already seen the rhythm section of Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster on drums lead the band through a brooding build into breezy pop, when a funky downbeat slammed us into “Younger,” a pensively-paced song from 2019’s In League with Dragons. The groove was undeniable, kind of a dark disco aesthetic, but the song climbed to next-level when the multi-instrumental Matt Douglas switched from piano accompaniment to a ripping sax solo to take the song home. Unlike the album version, where his part is tucked away in reverberant mystique, Douglas’ performance from the stage was full-bodied and soaring, and Darnielle was giddy listening to his bandmate shred: he leaned in, he laughed, he bowed down pretty much — the excitement was palpable.

The Mountain Goats | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Douglas was in many ways the MVP of this gig, and we heard him shine again in the breathy notes and downbeat atmosphere of “When A Powerful Animal Comes” from this year’s Dark In Here — their fourth album (and third band-oriented album) in the past two years. The Mountain Goats discography of late can be…a lot to take in, and I’ve likened it to the adventurous spirit of Joni Mitchell’s work in the late 70s and 80s (which, Joni stan over here, I love), at least in sense of “this is the musical journey I’m on, and you can choose to follow.”

So while, true, these records don’t have points of connection as broadly resonant as Tallahassee or The Sunset Tree (cult classics to genuine classics which also got robust showings Tuesday night), they all have memorable moments within that particularly elevate when the band puts their chops to them in concert. The same impact is applied to Darnielle’s back-catalog: “Prana Ferox” from Sweden, a mostly bare-bones acoustic song on album, was extended and jammified with brilliant guitar harmonics and a locked-in pace; Tallahassee‘s title track was re-arranged with a brilliant crescendo that had the audience pumping fists and singing along to the concluding lyrics “What did I come down here for? You.”

The singalong component became all the more pronounced as the show went on and the hit parade began — “Woke Up New,” “Southwood Plantation Road,” “Palmcorder Yajna,” “No Children,” and of course “This Year,” a song that got many of us through last year. Equally prominent were the other staples of any Mountain Goats show, the discursive and hysterical banter — Darnielle went on long monologues about Weekly World News and professional wrestling to set up various moments during the night — as well as the mid-set-solo block, which at this show featured “Until I Am Whole,” “Isaiah 45:23,” and “Alphabetizing,” and of which Darnielle said “I was in a dark mood when I was writing this setlist. Now I’m in a good mood. But I must harness the dark mood.”

So the purists got their moment. Progressive fans got their moments, as well. And if nothing else, we got to collectively scream “I hope we all die” and “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me” with a roomful of folks for whom the desperation and catharsis of the words is also a thing of shared joy.

Check out photos and the full setlist below. The Mountain Goats’ tour continues tomorrow night in New Haven, Connecticut; dates and information can be found here.

Aulon Raid
Corsican Mastiff Stride
Prana Ferox
Pez Dorado
The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower
Until I Am Whole
Isaiah 45:23
1 Samuel 15:23
When a Powerful Animal Comes
Woke Up New
Cry for Judas
Lion’s Teeth
Southwood Plantation Road
Heel Turn 2

The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums
Palmcorder Yajna
Up the Wolves
No Children
This Year
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