Adding drums to your two-man indie lit-folk thing recalls what Chekhov said about pistols hanging on walls: Eventually, they’d best to go off.
Adding a light show, roadies, a Rhodes and a shaggy-haired, blazer-clad lead guitarist—as Durham’s John Darnielle did to his expanding band The Mountain Goats during their just-concluded Life of the World to Come tour—and, well, you have something else entirely.
At New York's Webster Hall Tuesday night, Darnielle entered the stage as the band was already playing, suddenly materializing bug-eyed behind a keyboard for a pentecostal tear through World to Come opener, "1 Samuel 15:23." With guitarist Perry Wright (of Raleigh’s The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers) filling out Darnielle's spare keyboard arrangment, the version exploded into something far grander than its album rendition.
And Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster—who joined Darnielle and mainstay bassist Peter Hughes with 2008's Heretic Pride—went off with some frequency, too. On that previous tour—and in places on Darnielle’s recent albums—it has happened a bit too often, leveling Darnielle’s idiosyncratic tunes into something blander than they really are. Over 20ish full-lengths and countless EPs in 18 years, most recorded on boomboxes, Darnielle's formula of strident guitar and even-more-strident vocals has remained similar. Too many peppy indie-folk beats soon get tiring.
With a quartet and a keyboard, though, Darnielle was able to parlay the band into a series of ensembles: a version with Darnielle on keys, a drums-heavy four-piece for Darnielle to belt over ("Old College Try"), a surprisingly low-key duo with Wurster ("Enoch 18:14"), a cabaret-like solo number on the piano ("Genesis 30:3"), a solo number on guitar ("Going to Port Washington")—plus another few with Final Fantasy leader Owen Pallett on violin and keys.
As Darnielle's piercing voice once cut through tape warble, it now cuts through increasingly cavernous venues, like the sold-out 1,500-capacity Webster Hall (and the tour's closer, the following night, at Brooklyn's 425-capacity Bell House). Though one might miss the intimacy of Darnielle and Hughes' long-running duo, the quartet Goats now make it obvious why Darnielle went the way he did: He's a drama queen. On "Going To Bristol," for instance, in which Darnielle sang over Pallett's violin, the 37 year-old songwriter gesticulated along with the lyrics, turning a key in the air ("the key broke off in the deadbolt lock") and holding up two fingers ("that was the second time you said that in one day"). He danced a jig around Pallet. Between songs, he was chatty as ever, delivering soundbitey one-liners. "My therapist thinks I share too much,” he said.
After a few more Wurster explosions ("Song For Dennis Brown," "See America Right"), Darnielle pulled another theatrical move, stalking off stage with the band in full swing, mirroring his entrance. Following the sing-along glories of "This Year" and "No Children," with Pallett behind the keys, Darnielle's theatricality bested itself. There was a double encore of "Going to Georgia," an adoring and attentive audience, and a deep, luxurious bow.