The best part of my conference trip last week had nothing to do with the conference. Oh, sure, I enjoyed going to sessions, talking with old friends, meeting new people, and getting folks to strip naked for my camera. My own session was well-attended, and people kept coming up to me later to tell me how much they liked what I’d said. That’s always nice.
But the most amazing, transformational experience of the conference was a Mountain Goats concert I went to with a couple of friends on Thursday night. In fact, I loved the show so much that I changed my plane ticket so that on Sunday night, Scrivener and I could drive a couple hundred miles north to see the Mountain Goats perform again.
The group is called the Mountain Goats, but the front man, John Darnielle, is the genius, the personality, that we went to see. It’s been six years since I first listened to his music, and for six years, Scrivener has been telling me how important the songs were to him. It’s taken me six years to completely understand what he was talking about.
John Darnielle is smart, articulate, and talented. He gives terrific interviews. His lyrics are poetry, really, poems that happened to be set to music. But he’s more than a musician, a writer, and a performer. He’s a healer.
In the middle of the concert, he did a solo section – just him and a guitar. His album The Sunset Tree is filled with autobiographical songs about the way that his stepfather abused him, and those are the kind of songs he chooses for the solo section. As he sang, I look around at the faces in the crowd, and I could see how his words resonated. I’m not one to cry in public, but it was impossible not to. I could feel sadness swirling through the room as people around me sang the lyrics with him.
A few songs later, and everyone in the room was jumping up and down, pumping fists in the air, and singing as loud as they can, loud and triumphant. His music celebrates his survival. We were in the very front, my legs touching the edge of the wooden platform he was performing on, and it was amazing to be inside that energy. At one point, John Darnielle leaned out across the crowd, singing to people, reaching out to shake hands – and then he reached down to run his hand through Scrivener’s curly hair, grabbing his head the way you might a child’s, a public gesture that seemed incredibly intimate.
No matter what he sang, even when it was brand new material, everyone in the crowd seemed to know all the words. In one of his most popular songs, everyone repeats the line “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” and I could just tell, looking at the faces in the crowd, that they’d lived that song. John Darnielle kept leaping around the stage, laughing and looking out at the crowd, and you could tell he was thinking, “I can’t believe I get to do this. There’s no place I’d rather be.”
I stood there, amidst the swirl of healing energy, the sweaty bodies all swaying to his words, and thought to myself, “Yeah, he’s right. He’s absolutely right.”