The Mountain Goats / Headshoppe / Vinny Miller - Institute of Contemporary Arts - London
It's an odd genre, that of alt.country, but one we, as mere consumers of a media that likes to label and pigeonhole anything that doesn't fit neatly into the pop category, are stuck with. Opening act tonight Vinny Miller neatly illustrates the folly of such labels. He is merely a singer/songwriter of talent, and that should be label enough. Playing a short set, the bullet headed strummer neatly builds songs of simple construction but nailed together with a voice that simply astounds. Lyrics are growled, slurred and spat out but also delivered with simplicity. He is slightly reminiscent of Daniel Johnston, in that the songs are simple, heart on the sleeve affairs, but without that particular singers' sense of tragedy. Highlight of the set was a song consisting of sampled strummed guitar played on a laptop, speeded up and looped; it sounds odd, but it worked.
Next up, Headshoppe were a slightly more ramshackle affair, boasting a singer of some charisma, even though he looked not unlike Vernon Schilinger from Oz, but don't let that put you off. They are worth a listen, songs like Suburbia and Sick veer between sardonic lyrics poking fun at various aspects of suburban life and shouting affairs, delivered with passion and verve. Highlight was Don't Want To Be With Nobody But which started life as a simple descending bass line, one that Angelo Badalamenti would be proud off, but ends as an almost prog rock type riff-a-rama. Lovely stuff and there's something of Ian Dury about our singer here, but that, it goes without saying, is a good thing.
And so to The Mountain Goats. Rarely can an atmosphere be described as truly electric, but tonight it was. John Darnielle may not have a massive following, but the people that do like him absolutely love him. Taking the stage in a traditional chair with just a bass player (Peter Hughes) for accompaniment, he delivered short sharp acoustic shock songs that pierce the skin and stay there like a bad tattoo. Slow West Vultures is our opener and sets the atmosphere for the next hour. John is on fire tonight, his body twisted and convoluting as he pours out his black humour leaden lyrics, for a further examination off, we shall direct you here, were we review latest album, We Shall All Be Healed. He's dressed like a vicar, but sings like he has the devil inside him, and, who knows, if the songs are anything to go by, he probably does.
John's also in a really good mood. Delivering little anecdotes between songs and quipping about the Chicago Cubs chances in the super bowl, something that the yanks in the crowd lapped up. There’s even requests taken from the audience, which makes the gig seem that much more personal and intimate Linda Blair Was Born Innocent is described as being a song about two people who meet and fall in love, but not with each other, but with speed. Most of the set is taken up with songs from the new album, and the live setting really gives a new dimension to them. Palmcorder Yajna still sounds superb, even shorn of it's honky tonk piano and slower songs like Mole feed on the audiences sense of expectation. As a live experience, it's one of the best you'll encounter.
The Mountain Goats gave an hour of excellent music that really defies simple categorization, and certainly does not belong in some artificial box called alt.country. Darnielle is one of those performers that doesn't merely feed from an audience, but really puts back as much as he takes and you feel exhilarated, simply by having been in the company of a truly great artist, a person who sings about life as he knows it, and uses the music to make sense of this great mess were all in. There's more passion, violence, aggression and energy in one of his strums than most punk bands can muster in entire careers. It's wonderful stuff, and, it looks like he'll be back next year, as he kept making that particular point, so please be first in the queue for tickets.
And if you are the person who owns the mobile phone that went off during his quiet, extremely emotional and moving performance of a song dedicated to a young child he knew who died a few days ago, then there is a special level of hell reserved just for you. No, no jokes here, there really is.