April 12, 2011

A ghost at the back of your closet

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.”

11 comments:

Cindy said...

That sounds like a great experience. I've never listened to them, but I'm going to check them out on youtube.

Lilian said...

wow, that's awesome. I'm so glad you got to experience it with Scriv.

elswhere said...

Lucky you! I love that album so much. And "This Year" and "Up the Wolves" are two of my favorite songs from it. I wish I could see them live.

Scrivener said...

jo(e) forgot to mention that Phillip, the banjo player for the opener Megafaun, sought her out after the show to shake her hand and let her know that she has "the kindest eyes of anyone I've ever seen." It was really sweet.

Val said...

Best Review Ever. :) It sounds like an amazing night--and re-sets the bar for what music and song-writing and performing can be. 'Glad you guys got to share the time and experience together. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm jealous. I've never seen John Darnielle perform.

SH

jo(e) said...

I also didn't tell the story about the ten-year-old kid who came to the show with his mother. He stood next to me, up in front, and it was fun to watch his face the whole time. He'd written a paper about John Darnielle in third grade. (I think the assignment was to write about your hero.)

Afterwards, when the show was over and John Darnielle came out to talk to fans, it was fun to watch him to talk to this ten-year-old kid. He was sweet and encouraging and supportive.

twofrisch said...

you know, jo(e), I've been reading your blog for about 6 years now, and I feel like I know you. I've been in That Southern City You Keep Mentioning for 5 of those years and I swear one of these times when you come down here I am going to be brave enough to figure out a way to meet you for real.

Thanks for the music recommendation. :)

jo(e) said...

twofrisch: Oh, we *should* meet! Next time, just send me an email and I'll give you my cell phone number.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Powerful experience, wish I were there! I will have to look him/them up.

jo(e) said...

Mary: Definitely, you should! I was telling Scrivener, actually, that if the Mountain Goats ever play in Detroit, that I'd come visit you and we'd go. You'd love them.