By the time the audience had gathered in the Fillmore on Friday night to see the Mountain Goats, news of the school shooting in Connecticut had jarred people across the country and incited countless conversations about gun regulation and mental health resources. Tragedy can spur these important discussions, but the events of Friday morning called for something else as well. John Darnielle, the man behind the Mountain Goats, opened by recognizing the tragedy as a huge disappointment — another thorn in our hope for humanity – but more importantly, as a reason for us to get together, make music, and spread joy.
Darnielle’s ability to empathize with the dark side of life made him a perfect candidate to guide us through mourning with understanding and empathy. About half the set was from the new album, Transcendental Youth. About problematic youth and self-destructive tendencies, this couldn’t have felt more pertinent.
The songs took on new meaning in light of that morning’s events. “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” is supposedly about Amy Winehouse (or alternatively: all the not-Amy Winehouses who died and no one knew about). But on Friday it was equally about Adam Lanza. The song encourages recklessness so long as it’s not at the cost of your life. The lines, “find where the heat’s unbearable and stay there if you have to/don’t hurt anybody on your way up to the light,” made me think about the thin line between deciding to hurt someone else or hurting yourself.
The evening was much more than psychological investigations though: Darnielle brought home the loss of the families of the children and teachers with a story about his 15-month-old son. “When you are far from your child and you hear that something terrible has happened to children,” he said, “there is this indescribable horror that descends on you – that I think is understandable by anyone – but at the same time it does sort of feel like it belongs to you.”
He played two lullabies he sings for his son which were both mature enough to reach to the most cynical and life-worn audience member: the crowd was pleased with “Ripples” by the Grateful Dead which he followed with Johnny Cash’s “Dark is the Dungeon”. (In case you worrying that a song about the dark of coal mines might be depressing for a 15-month-old, Darnielle assured us that his son loves it, recounting how the boy’s face looks as though “you destroyed everything that brought him joy in this world” the moment the guitar goes back on the rack).
Throughout the evening, Darnielle played many of his older songs, solo on acoustic guitar, like the calm reflection on the power of inspiration, “Love Love Love.” The rest of the Mountain Goats joined him with the aggressive drumming and steady bass on the Transendental Youth songs as well as old favorites like “Up the Wolves.” Occasionally, the brass from Matthew E. White’s band would fill in on the new numbers while Darnielle transitioned to the keyboard.
In addition to the horn contribution, White’s opening set added complexity to the show, but still fit in with the reflective mood of the evening. Often, the rich lyrics from his studio album, Big Inner, were hard to make out against the orchestrated upbeat keyboard, guitar, percussion, and punctuating brass.
As the lyrical meanings were scaled back though, the simultaneously symphonic and psychedelic builds and breakdowns were brought to the front. But, White did become selectively audible, and the message came out crisp and clear on the song “Gone Away” which he dedicated to the children who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary. He explained that he had written the hauntingly beautiful song the night his 4-year-old cousin died in a car crash.
After the moments of sadness and reflection were over, everyone turned their comforted hearts into a unified chorus, singing along for the Mountain Goats’ encore: including the angry number, “No Children” and the defiant anthem, “This Year.” I thought about the time I sang both songs driving home with my best friend, the songs almost demand it.
The joined voices made clear how many people in the audience had also used those songs to get through a hard time. This sense of shared perseverance despite our private struggles was the perfect note to end the trying day, bringing everyone together to take back the hope we might have lost earlier.