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Concert Notes: The Mountain Goats and Kaki King

October 21, 2008

[embedded YouTube video; if you can’t see it, click here]

[Showbox at the Market, Seattle, WA; October 20, 2008]

I’ve seen the Mountain Goats umpteen times, and every show that I’ve been to has been amazing – I’ve never been to a show where I felt like John Darnielle has given less than his best. Last night was no exception, and the superlative Mountain Goats performance was only highlighted by opener Kaki King.

There’s a fable for artists, whose source is now lost to me. The story is that two budding potters were taking a class. One neophyte potter was told that his efforts should go towards making the perfect pot, and that he would be graded on the perfection on a single piece. The second was told that she would be graded on the volume of pots that she turned out; that she shouldn’t worry much about any given pot, as her grade would just be based on the total number. At the end of the class, the student who was just interested in getting pots made was making better pots than the student who agonized over making each one perfect. I thought of this story last night as the Mountain Goats played ‘Going to Georgia.’ It’s an astonishing piece of songwriting, a perfect merger of music, lyrics, and emotion. I once listened to it a dozen times in a row, and each time I heard “she smiled as she eased the gun from my hand,” I felt like someone had reached into my chest and torqued my heart. Darnielle is famously prolific and, like the potter in the story, it’s clear that he’s honed his craft. It comes through in both the quality of individual songs and in the sheer depth of stellar songs from his catalog that he can draw from for his live shows.

As well as being an exceptional songwriter, Darnielle is a phenomenal performer. He always comes across as happy to be performing and fully engaged in his interactions with his band and with the audience. One of the manifestations of this is his between-song banter.  A highlight last night was his response to shouted-out song requests. Like most musicians, Darnielle doesn’t do requests from the audience. (listen up, concertgoers!) He described his response in terms of Kafka’s The Castle, in which the protagonist tries to convince the guards to let him in. “The guards say, “You can give us money. We wouldn’t want you to feel like you hadn’t tried everything you could.” So he gives them his money, and they take it, and they still don’t play Ace of Bass.”

Darnielle’s onstage gifts were thrown into stark relief by his tourmate and collaborator, Kaki King. It’s abundantly clear that King is technically proficient, and I’m happy to see a guitar goddess get added to the mostly male pantheon. But her performance was insular. She barely engaged with her band, much less the audience, and her few remarks were surprisingly mean-spirited. She introduced what I presume was her best-known song with, “I’m contractually obligated to play this song. So you can all touch yourselves now.” Not a very effective way to endear yourself to your existing fans, much less win over new ones. And I’m sorry, Ms. King – you’re just not famous enough to be bored with playing your ‘hits.’  The only time she seemed seriously engaged with anything besides her guitar was when she was sharing a stage with Darnielle – she was smiling, facing him, and her body language said, loud and clear, “I’m playing with you!” (they performed several songs from the Black Pear Tree EP and the Smiths’ ‘I’m so Sorry’).  King has a lot to learn from her tourmate, who is admittedly a master – I would follow John Darnielle into Hell if he sang and played his guitar as we went, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

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