Any Baltimorian will tell you that the Ottobar is small. Not many people can fit into the space, and, moreover, not many people can fit onto the stage. So the announcement that Matthew E. White and The Mountain Goats would share a bill there sounded like a gift too big for its wrapping paper. White’s touring band is a nine-piece (including him), and John Darnielle’s The Mountain Goats are a cult act, who grows by the day. If it were possible, it would be glorious. I guess the Ottobar had it figured out, though, because things went swimmingly. All felt and sounded at home, which is just about the most you can ask of a show of this just barely below-the-radar ilk.
White and his Richmond, VA Spacebomb funk started things off right. White’s sound, size, and the perfect display of those things seem to warrant, if not beg, for the phrase “killing it.” Yep, White killed it. He also had a good time doing so, and seemed to keep his 8 bandmates both happy and impassioned. Led by White, they emerged from the Ottobar’s short stage door frame like a boyscout troupe following its Scoutmaster. They kept coming, and packed themselves into the small surface-area with ease.
White announced the name of his record, Big Inner, and for the first time, I realized its play on words. It came out sounding like “Beginner”, and even he had to repeat himself to more accurately enunciate. As recent reviews, profiles, and White himself have alluded, Richmond, VA’s burgeoning scene is fraternal and idiosyncratic. You could see and feel it last night. White is a part of something bigger, and his large band and sound are just a taste. Moreover, there’s no reason why this stuff shouldn’t and won’t catch on. In this way, White is a beginner, and he’s taking us all along for the ride. He’s started something special.
Like Bon Iver with more of a confetti speckled swing, White’s music takes funk, soul, Motown, and art-rock and subdues it into a doped-up haze; Al Green on Ambien, James Brown on Morphine. The energy is all there, while White’s soulful baritone seems caught in a space between sleep and uplifting praise. Seeing this stuff live really makes it all click–White isn’t imitating or emulating just because it’s cool, he’s commenting on the ideas and sounds which his songs address. “Brazos”, for example, found White and his band inhabiting a gospel hook while its musical bed fell apart, enveloping the lyrics’ steadfast, faithful anchor for what felt like five minutes straight: “Jesus Christ he is our lord/ Jesus Christ he is your friend.” White held onto these words as a preacher might clutch his bible while watching disaster strike, his surroundings mutating to discordant madness. White’s calm mantra maintained its center. It felt right, it sounded good.
Next up was Darnielle, and the crowd went nuts. High-pitched screams and uproarious applause were regulars throughout a set that focused mostly on material from the week-young Transcendental Youth and Goats favorites The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee. Darnielle is just about the only reason why you would ever put “fun” and “marital turmoil” into the same sentence, but his smiley stage presence and heartbreaking subject matter are legitimately heartwarming and joyous to witness. He told drawn out tales of his abusive stepfather, his childhood obsession with wrestling, and the moments you catalog as your relationship sinks into its deep dark abyss.
I enjoyed his oratorical skills almost as much as I did his playing, which, in typical Mountain Goats fashion, straddled the line between musically competent and cutesily simplistic. Darnielle seems to have mastered the art of set planning, regularly pulling a setlist from his pocket so that “nobody could see it” and varying up the instrumentation and stage setup every couple of songs. He started off alone on piano, brought out his two bandmates, switched to acoustic guitar, sent his bandmates off, brought out a brass section, sent them packing, and then brought everyone out for the set’s momentous conclusion, a ferocious sing-a-long “This Year”.
While Darnielle’s new material sounded perfectly fine, it was clear that the old stuff hit much harder. This seemed to be a crowd of die-hards, judging by the high frequency screams and ear-splitting yells, and they only got louder and happier when stops like “Color in your Cheeks”, “First Few Desperate Hours”, “Up the Wolves”, and true second encore “No Children” were pulled out. Darnielle responded to his minions with cheery, snarky banter, as you’d expect him to, and seemed incredibly delighted to be in Baltimore, even covering Wye Oak’s “Civillian” as a sign of gratitude. It felt good to be at home with Darnielle and White, and the Ottobar’s confidence in its ability to bring them there made it all possible.
Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator I)
Up the Wolves
First Few Desperate Hours
Color in Your Cheeks
Civilian (Wye Oak)
Ox Baker Triumphant
You Were Cool
The Life of the World to Come
Ezekiel 7 And The Permanent Efficacy Of Grace
The Diaz Brothers
Memory of Satan
Cry for Judas
Going to Kansas
See America Right