the mountain goats [2009]

Herbst Theatre
San Francisco, CA
24 February 2009

This was my first “In Conversation and Song” from the SF City Arts and Lecture Series. I’m not sure what I expected really. I mean I knew that I’d always enjoyed Darnielle’s witty between-song banter, but would a prolonged dialogue be too much of a stretch?

It’s really a question I have about most of my favorite artists, actually. What it would be like to hear them have a real conversation about their music, their lives. Audio/video interviews with indie artists are few and far between. And this, of course, would be live.

As it turned out, Darnielle’s relaxed, meandering conversation with author Tobias Wolff was simply delightful, a fully-realized extrapolation of said witty banter. All of the sincerity and the humor, the profundity and the silliness. It was all there.

As almost any fan will proudly attest – John Darnielle is one of us. He’s a big dork. He’s at times, awkward, clever and clumsy. At one point during the conversation, a young woman came out on stage to give Darnielle another glass of water. He looked up and smiled, politely thanking her. Then he looked back at the crowd, a bit sheepishly, and smiled. “It’s a sweet life, eh?”

The stories Darnielle told were incredibly personal and revealing, providing insightful glimpses into his life and the basis for many of his songs. It was a perfect precursor for the music to which we would soon be treated.

The musical portion of the evening was, of course, fantastic. Delivered with emotional power. Surrounded by background tales of lost love and grand highway travels. But it was the stories that really stole the spotlight.

We learned about so much of this life: his literary inspirations, his childhood love of pro-wrestling, growing up in Pomona, his years as a heroine addict, his abusive stepfather, his work as a psychiatric nurse. The man has a lot to share.

He spoke about some of his less-than-perfect characters: “I don’t think they’re evil. I think they’re damaged. And I have a lot of love for the damaged.”

With Darnielle, there is little, if any, artifice. And for this reason, his words can at times border on the Hallmarky. And yet, there is meaning beneath the seemingly-saccharin-surface. Speaking again about the characters in one of his songs: “You do the best you can. But everyone does the best that they can. They’d do better if they could.”

In the end, I shouldn’t have been at all surprised that John Darnielle would be just as captivating in conversation as in song. What makes him such an amazing songwriter is the same thing that makes him such a great storyteller. He posesses the uncanny ability to connect with people, on a sincere, irony-free level. It’s really quite beautiful.