Words by Jesse Van Horn

Photography courtesy of Andrew Saputo — Instagram | Facebook

I am fascinated by Lydia Loveless. I cannot figure out how to describe her. She seems to exist between worlds, outside of time. With her paisley boots, electric blue hair, and psychedelic orange sunglasses, she could have just as easily existed in the 60’s or 70’s as now. Her songs also dance between genres. There are moments that evoke 90’s coffee house rock, ala Mazzy Star, before her voice twangs with a country drawl reminiscent of Emmylou Harris or Neko Case. She sings about heartbreak with an earnestness that seems unfortunately genuine. She seems too young to have lived the emotions behind her words. And the emotional gut punch of these songs is bolstered by the potency of her voice. She absolutely bellows the phrase, “I guess I’ll just do my best to ignore you,” before it fades away like a quickly blown out candle.

Lydia Loveless (Photo by Andrew Saputo)

I am routinely impressed by an artist’s ability to stand on stage with just a voice and a guitar, ripping themselves open for our collective entertainment. The confidence necessary to perform alone, without hiding behind instrumentation and noise, never fails to amaze me. And it makes perfect sense to me that she is opening for The Mountain Goats, because that blend of confidence, self-assuredness, and ingenuousness, is exactly what people came here for. 

Lydia Loveless (Photo by Andrew Saputo)

John Darnielle does not look like a rock star. He wears a button-down collared shirt, dress shoes, and an ill-fitting blazer. His hair is unkempt, but not in a stylized way. He’s probably been wearing the same pair of glasses for the last twenty years, yet when he walks on stage, people break down. He is so unabashedly, so unashamedly, so unrelentingly passionate about what he does it is infectious. He bounces on stage and bangs his head with unwavering enthusiasm. It is clear that he is thrilled to be here. The word ‘ecstatic’ would not be an overstatement. And his fans seemingly share his ecstasy. People cheer. People sing along. After each song the crowd erupts in jarring applause. I hear countless people shout “I love you!” from the balcony. Someone yells, “I read your book!” because of course they have. We all have.

The Mountain Goats (Photo by Andrew Saputo)

John Darnielle is not just a musician, he is an inspiration. He survived an abusive childhood. He survived substance abuse and addiction. The Mountain Goats are the musical equivalent of the It Gets Better movement. Darnielle sings about feeling lonely, lost, and left behind, but with grit, determination, and at-times-blind optimism. For countless awkward children, teenagers, and adults, these songs are a road map to survival. To the people in this room John Darnielle is the poster child of rock stardom. 

The Mountain Goats (Photo by Andrew Saputo)

It helps that the songs are great – the lyrics are poetic and clever. It helps that the musicians are incredibly talented – Jon Wurster’s drumming is mesmerizing, and how often do you get to see a saxophonist absolutely shred on stage anymore? It helps that Darnielle seems like a genuinely nice person – he thanks the sound tech after asking (and presumably receiving) more piano in the monitors. But the Mountain Goats are greater than the sum of their admittedly-substantial individual components. These are not just songs that we happen to like, these are life anthems that have carried us through our darkest times. 

The Mountain Goats (Photo by Andrew Saputo)

They end the night, as they frequently do, with “This Year.” It is a predictable move, but not a disappointing one. There is a reason it is one of their most popular songs. When Darnielle sings, “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me,” we all sing along with him, fists pumping in unison. And in this shared chorus we are cheering each other on. Every voice in this crowd, at one point or another, has sung this song to themselves as a pep talk. And as we chant this mantra of personal survival, the power of these words grows exponentially. We are creating magic. Through the shared experience of love and support and acceptance that so many of us spent so long without, we have found a place where we all belong. Where we have the courage to say, “I may not make it out unscathed, but I will make it out alive.” This is why we came here tonight. Because John Darnielle has survived the darkness that plagues us all, and he has shown us how to survive. We are all going to make it through this year, even if it kills us. 

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