Mountain Goats leader John Darnielle reached a dramatic turn of his 2006 song "Get Lonely" and could no longer contain himself. He started jumping up and down and moving side to side, his arms at his side, a gloriously spastic dance of joy.
The moment was a perfect emblem of Monday night's show at the sold-out Kessler Theater, and of Darnielle's default mode of undiluted feeling. A singer/songwriter whose tracks play like autobiographical short stories, he holds his cards out for all to see. Darnielle has as much coyness as a sprinter has body fat.
He also had a killer band in tow, a welcome development after an early career run that depended largely on his speak-sing voice and passionately strummed guitar. The MVP of Monday's show was Matt Douglas, who slid from clarinet to keyboards to baritone saxophone to guitar without missing a beat. Douglas' smoky sax brought spooky texture to "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan, and his clarinet added a playful touch to "Get Lonely." He seemed to be everywhere at once.
Darnielle's songs dance a fine line between ecstasy and despair, whether he's singing about his abusive stepfather (the subject of his 2005 album The Sunset Tree) or the hardscrabble, marginalized lives of professional wrestlers (who populate his most recent album, Beat the Champ). He performed songs about fire-throwing Detroit wrestler Ed "The Sheik" Farhat ("Fire Editorial"), and King Kong Bruiser Bundy ("Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan"). Yes, Bundy really was stabbed to death, in a locker room after a match in Puerto Rico.
Darnielle's repertoire also has a whole lot of Texas in it. He began Monday's show with the deceptively gentle-sounding "Blues in Dallas," from 2002's All Hail West Texas. His mid-show solo interlude included a stab at "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" (he lost the lyrical flow at about the three-quarters mark). When he got to the home state line of "Absolute Lithops Effect" ("And night, night comes to Texas"), the crowd let out a polite roar.
That crowd, by the way, was a model of concert decorum. That means they knew exactly when to shut up. The pin-drop quiet moments of Monday's show were among the most poignant of the night. Mountain Goats fans realize Darnielle means whatever he says, and they respond with rapt attention rather than boozy chatter. This was a night to listen, not speak.