Review: The Mountain Goats swerve through surprising, satisfying set at Tampa's Orpheum
Those who went to the Mountain Goats' show Saturday night at the Orpheum in Tampa witnessed the close of another chapter in the group’s long and varied history.
First coming to prominence with a string of lo-fi albums singer-songwriter John Darnielle recorded on a Panasonic boombox, the group grew to include bassist Peter Hughes and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster on 2002’s Tallahassee. And Saturday’s show was the last date in a tour that saw the band fleshed out with a fuller sound than ever before.
The Mountain Goats’ live lineup now includes a fourth member in multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas. His presence was certainly warranted in this tour supporting their new album Beat the Champ, which features some of the most intricate instrumentation in the group’s career.
Beat the Champ is entirely about professional wrestling, a subject matter that certainly has a sympathetic ear in the stomping grounds of Dusty Rhodes and Hulk Hogan. But Darnielle approaches the topic from a variety of angles, which is reflected in the music — whether that’s the jaunty horns of Foreign Object (with its bloodthirsty declaration of “I will personally stab you in the eye with a foreign object”) or the piano-driven melancholy of Southwestern Territory and Heel Turn 2.
The Mountain Goats' shows have always had a shape-shifting nature, alternating between a full band and solo and Darnielle switching from guitar to piano. But it felt especially freewheeling Saturday with Douglas moving from guitar to saxophone to clarinet to keyboard throughout the set.
Further helping that feel was the interplay between the Mountain Goats and their opening act, ‘70s-indebted rockers Blank Range. Those who chose to skip the openers missed them bringing Darnielle on stage for a cover of Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Then during the Mountain Goats’ set, they came out for a rendition of Little Feat’s Willin’.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Mountain Goats show without Darnielle devoting some time to deeper cuts he performed himself. And Saturday was no exception, starting with Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle from his Kaki King collaboration Black Pear Tree, accompanied by some spare backing from Wurster and a long introduction about Super Mario Bros.’ poetic nature.
Darnielle also played a pair of songs addressing Tampa itself: The Coroner's Gambit’s The Alphonse Mambo and B-side Jam Eater Blues. The lines “waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay” and “life is too short to spend the rest of it down here in Tampa,” respectively, unsurprisingly drew a big crowd reaction.
But for the most part, the setlist was unusually focused on Beat the Champ, as well as their previous album Transcendental Youth. That makes enough sense, as the two most instrumentation-heavy records from a band touring with their largest lineup yet.
Still, there’s something to be said for getting to hear more fully fleshed-out versions of older tracks. And the band did some lovely renditions of Tallahassee’s Game Shows Touch Our Lives and The Sunset Tree’s Love Love Love — songs that concertgoers have likely only seen performed as a trio or with Darnielle playing solo.
And for the encore, they pulled arguably their most two popular tracks in No Children and This Year. It’s something of a curiosity that an intensely bitter song about a poisonous marriage and a a temporary act of rebellion in the face of an abusive stepfather became the band’s biggest crowd-pleasers.
Yet even more unexpected was that the encore went on for one more song, Transcendental Youth deep cut Spent Gladiator 2, before the show came to a close. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t have been. By now, shouldn’t we know to expect the unexpected from The Mountain Goats?
-- Jimmy Geurts