Every culture needs its cult heroes. For a little boy with an abusive stepfather growing up lonely and bookish in central California, these heroes came in the form of Bull Ramos, Bruiser Brody, Chavo Guerrero, and Luna Vachon, among others, professional wrestlers in the early days of “sports entertainment,” when the results of matches were less manufactured and the stakes were slightly higher (as evidenced by the tragic biographies of these icons).
The youngster who found solace in idolizing these over-the-top characters grew up to be John Darnielle, a man who, by all accounts, has come into his own legendary status. As the lead singer and sole founding member of the Mountain Goats, Darnielle’s wit, wonder, and woe have made him an icon of American lo-fi songwriting with a rabid following of fans who can’t help but sing along with choruses as rousing as they are heart-wrenching. On tour in support of Beat the Champ, the Goats’ fifteenth studio album, the Durham-based four-piece played three sold-out nights in New York, including Webster Hall last Thursday and Saturday and a Sunday-night show at City Winery on April 12.
Beat the Champ is not unique, in that it centers on a particular theme. Darnielle’s prolific output usually finds him grouping collections of songs with related motifs. But unlike his autobiographical material, records that skewer his Catholic upbringing, or even songs based on a fictional tarot deck, Beat the Champ gathers its unlikely focus from channeling wrestlers whose stories both captivated and uplifted Darnielle during his tumultuous childhood. For a subject as seemingly ridiculous as professional wrestling, Darnielle’s sensitive renderings of its history make poignant metaphors out of these nearly forgotten figureheads. Darnielle is nothing if not a storyteller, and at Sunday’s show, it wasn’t just about the stories unfolding in the songs themselves, but also the stories he told about the songs before he even played them, taking care to provide conversational, often comedic background about his subjects, and mindset, before diving in.
The evening began with a set from Steven Brodsky, who replaced scheduled openers Ides of Gemini when their drummer suffered a herniated disc. Brodsky has steadily released solo material while also playing with Cave In (and a new project entitled Mutoid Man), and he drew from these many projects as well as covering a song originally recorded by Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate. Dedicating his set to Ides, Brodsky took full advantage of the opportunity and sang with the confidence of someone who has spent a lifetime on stage as a touring rock musician, albeit in mostly unknown bands. Heaps of distortion on Brodsky’s electric-acoustic gave the instrument a full, raw sound that easily filled the cozy venue, warming it up for the Mountain Goats nicely.
Opening with “Get Lonely,” Darnielle explained early on that the night’s performance would consist of considerably scaled-back versions of the previous nights’ sets, with a limited drum kit and less general noise. The band had previously played a “basement session” of sorts for City Winery, and Darnielle was so impressed with the tapes he’d decided to try to replicate the session’s vibe that evening. A good portion of the room had also attended the previous night’s show, so for them it must have been a nice change. As Darnielle put it after a rendition of crowd favorite “Last Year,” it also meant that some of the songs were more faithful versions of themselves. Regarding that specific tune, he mused, “That was as close as it has ever been to the album version in ten years of touring it.”
With longtime backing bandmates John Wurster on drums, Peter Hughes on bass, and Matt Douglas rotating between keyboard, warm baritone sax, and melancholy oboe, Darnielle was an indefatigable frontman. His goofy, Muppet-like grin rarely faded during the more upbeat tracks, particularly with newer songs from Beat the Champ like “Werewolf Gimmick,” “Foreign Object,” and “Ballad of Bull Ramos.” Darnielle retained a certain buoyancy even during more contemplative tributes like “Luna,” in which he recounts from the wrestler’s own point of view the 2009 fire that destroyed Vachon’s home and professional memorabilia. Sitting in on piano, Darnielle needed a gentle reminder from Hughes after the first verse about which words came next.
Mid-set, the band departed the stage for a run of four Darnielle solos, which included covers of such disparate acts as Ozzy Osbourne (“Shot in the Dark”) and the Grateful Dead (“St. Steven”). With characteristic humor, Darnielle stopped playing mid-song to interject observations on Ozzy’s mental state. He also hemmed and hawed a bit about the setlist itself, opting to play “Steal Smoked Fish” for the second night in a row despite the “delicious guilt” he felt he’d suffer for not playing something else in its place. The song memorializes a group of drug-addicted friends Darnielle once knew, and he said he’s felt a particular affinity for the track of late. It turned out to be a show-stopper in the best sense of the word.
The crowd delighted in the Goats’ newest material, and it’s no wonder — the songs are nearly as entertaining as the sport of wrestling itself. But like any cult hero, Darnielle was bound to fulfill the prerequisite anthems from the band’s back catalog. With a 21-song setlist, it wasn’t hard to squeeze in plenty of old and new alike, and even with highlights like “Cry for Judas,” “Love Love Love,” and “Up the Wolves,” the Beat the Champ songs held up well. But nowhere was Darnielle’s charming idiosyncrasy more fully expressed than during “No Children,” which closed out the first of two encores.
From the City Winery stage, a number of long tables fan out like rays of the sun. Darnielle left his microphone onstage and ceded lyrical duties to the audience, who gladly took up the mantle without missing so much as a syllable. Walking the length of the central table as though it were a plank or a runway, straight into the crowd, he paused on the line “I hope I lie and tell everyone you were a good wife” to stoop and pat a woman’s head, then grabbed a large glass bottle filled with tap water and took a swig as he leapt from the table’s end and went careening wildly through throngs of singing, joyous onlookers.
In the end, it’s not surprising that wrestling fables resonated so deeply with the young Darnielle, considering he’s adapted their larger-than-life personas for his own performances. Even with a concept so specific and seemingly silly, Darnielle’s delivery, as always, is too heartfelt to listen to passively, his stories too moving not to get wrapped up in. That’s a common thread that’s run throughout his 30-year career as a musician. That he sings of legends now shouldn’t seem so strange, given that he’s become one himself.