I first learned about The Mountain Goats’ latest album, Beat The Champ, when a friend of mine messaged me saying, “I’m pretty sure John Darnielle is releasing an album for you and you alone.” My friend was obviously joking, but she’s right that Beat The Champ, a concept album where each track is about some facet of professional wrestling, is tailored to a rather unusual venn diagram of fans. Despite the fact that Darnielle, the main creative voice behind The Mountain Goats, resides in a traditional hotbed for wrestling, there are probably few other folks in the world who have both sung Darnielle’s praises and also waxed philosophical about the main event at Wrestlemania.
And yet, there’s something very natural about Darnielle directing his humanizing gaze toward the squared circle. In the past, Darnielle’s shown a particular aptitude for writing poignant, heart-wrenching songs about vagabonds, broken men, and other self-destructive characters. Sadly, none of these individuals are in short supply in the wrestling business.
Professional wrestling also combines the pageantry, bombast, and showmanship of performance with the uneasy knowledge that the people behind the masks may have little in common with their avatars, or that they may be mired in darkness behind the curtain. This all lends itself well to the vivid imagery, metaphor, and bruised storytelling The Mountain Goats are known for.
It’s no surprise, then, that Beat The Champ is another stellar outing for Darnielle. The first single from the album, “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”, succeeds half as a paean to the titular grappler of yore and half as a mining of Darnielle’s own childhood, the same kind he’s given form to in seminal Mountain Goats tunes like “Dance Music”. Darnielle didn’t play that song in last night’s concert at The Kessler Theater in Dallas, but he hit the highlights of the new album; he played The Mountain Goats’ biggest hits, and he even dipped into some of the deeper cuts from the group’s prolific catalog to put on an amazing show deep in the heart of Texas.
Appropriately enough, the mass of rabid Mountain Goats fans who filled the stuffy confines of The Kessler Theater in the midst of the near-hundred-degree heat had the same spirit as the diehards who filled up bingo halls to see the old ECW, a DIY, grunge-influenced wrestling federation that inspired a similarly cult-like following. The crowd sang along to tunes from Beat The Champ, a studio album that has only been out for a couple of months, and to songs that Darnielle recorded more than a decade ago on a boom box that provided the then-trademark tinny whir of his lo-fi sound. They1 jumped up and down and pumped their fists through the band’s more raucous numbers; they fell into an awed hush for the quieter songs, and they hung onto Darnielle’s every word in between.
Darnielle, for his part, ate it up. He was all smiles as he bobbed and jigged around the stage as the music swelled and crescendoed. He seemed genuinely surprised and appreciative of the crowd’s adulation, telling the concert-goers that he’d heard the Kessler was a fun room to play, but that the cheering horde had more than lived up to the billing. He chatted with the crowd in a manner that was equal parts old friend, Sunday school teacher, and fittingly, professional wrestler. Darnielle offered joking asides, burst into shouts and fits, and shared the stories and intended lessons behind tracks new and old.
The Mountain Goats also added a couple of nods to their Lonestar setting. The band opened with “Dallas Blues” from their 2002 album All Hail West Texas, a song Darnielle declared they had never played live before, and which he assured the crowd they would never play live again.2 And during a solo stretch in the middle of the concert, Darnielle managed to make it about halfway through a spirited impromptu rendition of “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”, before admitting he couldn’t remember the rest of the lyrics.
The Mountain Goats also embraced the soft jazzy undertones that flitted through Beat The Champ, made possible on stage through Matt Douglas’s one-man woodwind section. Douglas’s talents added a great deal to the set, from the quiet melancholy of “Southwestern Territory”, a song that feels of a piece with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, to the rollicking, chant-worthy fun of “Foreign Object”, a tune that Darnielle explained is about people “worrying too much about their offense and not enough about their defense.”
The band deftly moved between reflections on the past like “Up the Wolves” and affirmations of the present like “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1”. Darnielle also showed that he could get the room jumping with songs like “The Diaz Brothers” but could also simmer it down with a haunting rendition of “Get Lonely.” Even one of Darnielle’s most famous songs, “No Children” featured an unexpected slow jam version of the opening riff, during which Darnielle explained that the song was about “learning things with your body,” including some things a person might not want to learn, but that they know because they’ve gone down that path.3 The sheer variety represented in the sumptuous twenty-three songs The Mountain Goats performed over the course of a full set and two encores was a testament to the depth and breadth of the band’s talent.
There’s a certain moment that comes in more than a few Mountain Goats songs. Around the third verse, Darnielle’s tone begins to sounds more urgent. The timbre of his voice heightens. The strings of lyrics start to sound like something halfway between an earnest bit of pleading and an angry declaration. In the swell of those moments, with the force and earnestness dripping from each lyrical utterance, it’s hard not to be stirred. When Darnielle burst into “This Year”, one of the band’s most notable songs, the adoring crowd leapt up and down and sang along at the top of their lungs, “There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year.” For a concert in support of an album that’s centered on pro wrestling, Darnielle can rest assured that he and his band engender the same type of passionate responses from the crowd that his in-ring heroes once did, with no less fervency or affection.