San Francisco Bathhouse
December 18 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

I SAW a jet-lagged John Darnielle and Peter Hughes play in 2005 to twenty people in Bodega. He seemed genuinely surprised that that many people even came back then, he asked in his laconic, self-deprecating style, “does anyone in the crowd own any of my albums?” One person put up his hand and said he owned two. Another said he had borrowed his album from library. Three years later it was the complete opposite, as the nearly full San Fran Bathhouse crowd pleaded for songs off him, giving him the rapturous applauses reserved for idols, as a relaxed Darnielle joked and threw himself around for his final performance of the year. But he played much harder than he did that time, a quite remarkable performance from a remarkable performer. He admitted that 2008 was a tough year, and when he closed his main set with ‘This Year’ and belted “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me”, it was as cathartic for Darnielle as it was celebratory for the audience.

Sidekicknick opened, their indie-rock a pleasant enough start to the night, while not really lobbing a grenade into the audience. They certainly had the room to be a bit more unpredictable. While they initially started off sounding like Summerteeth-era Wilco, they eventually threw more keyboards and twee instrumentation into the mix, before eventually exploding near the end of their set. While their live show wasn’t as interesting as their studio work suggests they could be (the wry lyrics didn’t come through on the mix for example), there were some nice melodies buried in the mix.

Darnielle opened up himself, only bringing on the band halfway through the set, triumphantly singing “I’m coming home” from The Coroner’s Gambit’s ‘Elijah’. He told his usual rambling narratives – pro-wrestlers, being prevented from running away as a teenager by his ex-girlfriend telling his current girlfriend’s step-sister, who told his girlfriend’s mother, who threatened to tell his parents. He’s commanding enough solo, his dark, purging narratives as intense and haunting as you’d expect, but that’d be obvious given he’s charted lo-fi-ness for nearly two decades, and his early recordings have that fierce live quality.

But when his band came on, the Mountain Goats really cut loose. They stormed on during ‘In the Craters of the Moon’, drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk) playing some mind-blowing rolls on the snare to announce his entrance, as if he was simply yawning. The band played a bit from this year’s very good release Heretic Pride, the driving rhythms from Wurster and Hughes matched Darnielle’s melodramatic and nasal voice perfectly. He eventually relented to an insistent, annoying squawking from sections of the crowd for Tallahassee’s ‘No Children’, finishing his performance with it. But this was a special performance, one of the best in what has been a glorious year for live music in the Capital, the immediacy and intensity of the Mountain Goats songs leaving the crowd elated, the performance, as far as the audience was concerned, effacing the dark, grim subject matter of his work.