The fan-made custom Google map entitled “The Mountain Goats” is marked with 259 blue pins, each representing a place mentioned in a song by the prolific Durham, North Carolina, band. Most of the pins land on precise and obscure locations: Gojjam, a now-divided province of Ethiopia; Tianchi Lake, in China; Sebastopol, a small Northern California town. The map is far from comprehensive, but even still, New York City gets five pins all to itself, seven if you count Long Island. It’s one of the highest concentrations outside Southern California, where John Darnielle, the singer-songwriter-anchor of the band, grew up.
“I’d like to point out that ‘Going to Queens’ was released before anyone was going to Queens, by the way,” laughs Darnielle on a call with the Voice, referring to an early Mountain Goats song, when the band was just him. “When I wrote it” — in 1995 — “they couldn’t even get people to go to Brooklyn.”
Darnielle is familiar with pre-gentrification New York City demographics in part because he has played here dozens of times over a 25-year career. His latest visit is this week, when he and his band spend three nights at City Winery, from April 17 to 19. It’s the capstone of a limited, loose tour inspired by a set they played last June at the same venue, which is much smaller than their usual bookings. “It’s nice to play a big room. A big room has a vibe,” says Darnielle. “But you [have to] just play your loud songs and cut out the ones that go into secret, fun places. And you don’t want to do that forever. You want to be able to [let] people get introspective, too.”
City Winery, according to Darnielle, is an ideal place to do this, something he discovered at the 2015 show, although the night didn’t start auspiciously: Darnielle forgot his phone in a cab on the way to the venue, where the band was recording a pre-show session in the basement. Anxious and disinclined to sit around, he and Matt Douglas, the Mountain Goats’ touring wind player, started riffing on “Get Lonely,” a favorite track of Darnielle’s too delicate for auditoriums. They tried another, and another, and liked it all so much they played it that way at the show. “It sounded really good [onstage], and it felt really good!” exclaims Darnielle. “NYC Taper” — a fan who records all of the Mountain Goats’ New York shows and shares them online for free streaming and downloading — “taped the set, and I listened to it once, and it sounded really nice. It sounded like the sort of thing you wanna do for a lot of people.”
NYC Taper is Dan Lynch, a prolific concert bootlegger who has been recording shows in the city since 1994. He’s seen (and taped) the Mountain Goats around fifteen times, beginning in 2008. “That City Winery show was special because the band and the venue are so well matched,” he says. “John’s performance style is very physical, and Peter” — Hughes, Darnielle’s bassist and a collaborator of over twenty years — “and [drummer] Jon Wurster are fantastic musicians, and at City Winery none of the seats are bad, or far away at all, so you can see everyone’s expressions and energy close up. You can really feel what’s coming off the stage.”
Devoted fans like Lynch (the kind who would, say, make a Google map about the band’s lyrics) love these small shows because they offer a chance to hear deep cuts from the Mountain Goats’ back catalog of more than seven hundred songs. Their obsession usually focuses on material released before 2002, the year Darnielle transitioned to studio recording. Until that point he’d mostly laid down tracks on a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox, the cassette tape hiss included in the finished product. “I won’t say that what I started out as was unmusical,” Darnielle says of this period, “[but] I was not a guitarist.” On the first Mountain Goats record, Taboo IV: The Homecoming, the noise is so pronounced it’s almost impossible to hear Darnielle, which is a shame, because his lyrics — a deft mix of wry humor, surprisingly detailed stories, and rich poetry — are unparalleled.
For those same reasons, though, many of these early tracks don’t translate well to bigger spaces, and Darnielle says it’s difficult, and often less interesting to him, to play decades-old solo songs now that he has a full band and new material to fill a large stage. “But on between-album tours, and in these small venues, you can do all manner of stuff,” he says. “On a duo tour a few years ago, Peter and I played the entirety of three of my first cassettes at a show in San Francisco.” Among other things, the recording of those shows finally produced a clearer version of Taboo IV. I was in that audience, and it was a delight to hear — really hear, without struggling against almost-unlistenably-low fidelity — the record start to finish; I return to that live recording more often than the static-filled original. The promise of witnessing one-off stunts like this, or hearing a song Darnielle hasn’t played in ten years, is the reason serious fans see the band so often, Lynch says. “With such a big back catalog, I’ve never been to a Mountain Goats show where I didn’t hear something new [to me].”
There isn’t a new record this time, so Darnielle can have some fun, but it probably won’t include completely fresh material. “It’s hard to create onstage in the age of the cellphone,” he laments. “You can’t take the risk of playing something new unless you’ve really rehearsed it, because everyone’s going to hear it an hour after you play it.” He leaves unmentioned the fact that an unusually dedicated fan base makes this even harder: I’ve seen hardcore fans at these intimate shows ignore his explicit requests from the stage not to record spontaneous performances he’d rather keep within the room, which have included one-off compositions and renditions of songs he’s co-written with his toddler.
Darnielle remains undeterred, though, and is excited to return to a venue that brings out the essence of his band. “Connecting that to the intimacy of old Mountain Goats performances, which were very much about forging human connection [and] sharing energy, is an interesting axis to try and straddle,” he says. “Our whole project has often been showing that just because we’re with acoustic guitars, it doesn’t mean you can’t melt faces.”