The Mountain Goats came on stage to Amy Grant’s 1982 CCM hit “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.” The song’s pseudo-classical intro swirled as the trio of John Darnielle, Jon Wurster, and Peter Hughes — accompanied on this tour by multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas — took their places in time to belt the song’s chorus to the crowded Vogue. It was a totally earnest, self-consciously cheesy, personal, communal moment, and it was perfect.
Opener William Tyler, with his lovely instrumental guitar performance left the space freighted. His lyric-less wandering made the air heavy with what music can gesture at but not quite say. Darnielle, having made a multi-decade-long career out of saying nearly everything he and his narrators can muster, needed to puncture this. And so we sang our praises to the Lord.
For a show nominally in support of the band’s most recent LP Beat the Champ, the set was light on new songs. Only “Stabbed to Death out San Juan” and “Foreign Object” made it in. The former’s quasi-Jethro Tull instrumental passages were bolstered mightily by Douglas’ layers of saxophone on top of the old standby acoustic guitar, drums, and bass set up of the Mountain Goats as a live act. The latter’s chorus of “I will personally stab you in the eye with a foreign object” as rousing singalong flipped the effect of the Amy Grant intro. Zero elision in either, but one praised a deity, the other ocular violence.
Darnielle played a brief solo set part way through the night, and it was stuffed with surprising deep cuts. “Transjordanian Blues,” an anthem against church strictures from the 2001 EP On Juhu Beach whose conclusion of “I am saved by the blood of the lamb!” again swept the room into something like dialectical worship, before dive-bombing into the extraterrestrial apocalypse of “The Day the Aliens Came,” itself a non-album track from 2005’s The Sunset Tree.
With a deep back catalog and a growing crop of new fans, it could be easy to smell cynicism off the band’s decision to pack the encore with crowd favorites like “No Children.” In the middle of his solo set when someone shouted a request for “This Year,” Darnielle laughed and said, “Now is not the time for me to play the only song that people who don’t care about my music know.”
Even so, when that song’s climactic moment came during the encore, there was no hesitation, no people-pleasing. There was only furor, rage and hope: “There will be feasting, and dancing, in Jerusalem next year,” the room thundered.
The singular power of the Mountain Goats is that the band manages to take guileless lines that would otherwise be flat and overly determined and open them up. The Vogue rattled with the scorch of this screaming ambivalence. Praise, praise.