The Mountain Goats Perform a Soundtrack Live at the Castro Theatre

Categories: Last Night
The Mountain Goats at the Castro Theatre last night. Pics by Chris.
The Mountain Goats (live film soundtrack)
December 14, 2010
@ The Casto Theatre

Better than: Fumbling with the bong, trying to synch up Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz.

We've all surely heard the joke by now. The "how many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?" joke. Yep, that one.

If not, here's the punchline: It's some obscure number, you probably haven't heard of it. And so it goes for indie folk rock, too, with its Anne Frank references, tales of Dickensian chimney sweeps, and concept albums about schizophrenic sign painters. What welds these acoustic guitar-wielding yarn-spinners together is a steadfast belief that there are no boundaries for inspiration. Nevermind the Bible; compelling stories are all around us, bounded but alive in books and art and film.

With that same spirit and belief in literary swordplay, cult folk heroes The Mountain Goats -- a nominally one-man-project spearheaded by John Darnielle -- performed live a newly commissioned score for the 1919 Swedish silent film Sir Arne's Treasure last night at the Castro Theatre. If there were ever a test of the kind of esteem in which San Francisco holds The Mountain Goats, this was it. The 1,400-seat theater was full and abuzz, hopeful that Swedish film has always been as good as it has recently (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Let the Right One In, etc.). In Darnielle we trust, apparently.

As the Mountain Goats frontman wrote on his web site in the days leading up to the show, the score is a collection of songs from Darnielle's 1995 Sweden song cycle, along with a few tracks from Hail and Farewell, Gothenburg. The film follows three Scottish mercenaries escaped from prison who murder and steal the titular character's treasure chest. Their murderous spree leaves behind one survivor, who becomes the apple of one of the mercenary's mad, molester-y eyes. Classic, obscure movie meets classic, obscure album -- just the sort of thing we'd expect from Darnielle.

Anytime you pair the audio with the visual, the brain aches to connect the dots of rhythm and vision (see this), but seldom did Darnielle aim for the obvious synch. The first half of the film was met with trademark Mountain Goats minimalism, spare and somber notes echoing off an acoustic guitar and piano, Darnielle's signature nasally vocals ebbing and flowing.

There was an especially palpable disconnect between what we saw onscreen and heard from the speakers during the film's more light-hearted moments, which were surprisingly plentiful. But The Mountain Goats were fully capable of capturing the film's themes of loss, isolation, and betrayal, and Darnielle's weeping guitar work made an appropriate backdrop to the rural Swedish landscape of the 16th century.

About halfway through the film, we realized that the three gentlemen sneaking up to the front row of the theater had good reason -- they were in the band. Well, at least for the night. Local troubadour John Vanderslice joined bassist Jamie Riotto and drummer Jason Slota to help Darnielle flex the Mountain Goats sound on more rockin' numbers such as "The Recognition Scene," "Prana Ferox," and "Crane."

Vanderslice's electric-guitar play over the next half hour was mostly svelte but technically wondrous when given the auditory space, artfully erratic in the same way Sufjan Stevens seizures to solo.

But with all these modern fixings and songs about contemporary life and relationships and other things beyond the film's 16th century frame of understanding, we had to wonder what it was exactly we were meant to extract from this odd coupling.

Perhaps that's why Darnielle admitted after the show that he'd never been as nervous for any show as he was for this one, "sweating bullets for two months," as he put it. Maybe he knew something was off.

Critic's notebook: Live music and film don't get paired together nearly enough, and just the mere attempt to tackle this was project was ambitious and rewarding in itself. Darnielle and Vanderslice had potent chemistry onstage, and Darnielle seemed to enjoy himself considerably more in the presence of company and during the jamming moments of the night. Can they just form a band already?

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