Review: The Mountain Goats at Maximum Ames Music Festival

John Darnielle at Maximum Ames Music Festival.
John Darnielle at Maximum Ames Music Festival.
“This may go on a minute…” John Darnielle.

At the first 80/35 in 2008, The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne expressed a desire to return in the festival’s fifth year. Obviously it didn’t happen, but The Maximum Ames Music Festival managed to pull off something similar in its fifth year, getting The Mountain Goats to make a return visit following his headlong the inaugural fest in 2011.

Saturday night’s concert was an entirely different experience than John Darnielle’s 2011 concert (though both were solo versions of the Goats). In the first year, Darnielle was performing at DG’s Tap House, a space that provides great energy for concerts, while 2015’s show was at First United Methodist Church. The experience at the latter is somewhere between a theater and a listening room show.
There were no loud bar conversations or general milling about this time around. The crowd sat in rapt attention during Darnielle’s set, with the singer-songwriter reflecting on how his quieter songs work well in churches, but his louder songs, where at times it feels like he’s shouting at the audience, work better in bars where he feels “in the same yelling and screaming vortex” with the crowd.
Darnielle entered the stages sitting at a grand piano and starting the show with “This Is My Father’s World,” a Christian hymn that felt fitting for the setting. From there he moved to the acoustic guitar and related that he had visited his former home in nearby Colo earlier in the day. There he had discovered the house had been torn down for being a fir hazard. He shared that he had written “There Will Be No Divorce” there before playing the song. It was cool the find out Iowa’s connection to the song, one of several Iowa origin stories he trotted out over the course of the night.
Iowa and wrestling were the themes of the night. The latter largely due to the wrestling-themed 2015 album “Beat The Champ.” But, of course, Darnielle’s songs are never as simple at they might appear on first listen. Before “Animal Mask” he related his distaste for songs about fatherhood, and the conflicts that created when he became a father. In the same lead-in he defined the concept of a Battle Royale in wrestling.
Next came the idea of a gimmick in wrestling, which made for a much simpler explanation of the song “Werewolf Gimmick.”
Darnielle went from that loud song to a near whisper on the next, “Wild Sage.” On some of the quieter songs, the crowd seemed to almost hold its breath to avoid missing out on a word.
It was after leaving in Iowa that Darnielle transitioned from his lo-if, boombox in a bedroom recording ways to the more polished, fuller band sound that came with 2004’s “We Shall All Be Healed.” But in the solo shows, Darnielle seems to revert to those lo-tech origins, focusing more on honesty than perfection, or admitting mid-song that he had forgotten a word, like he did in “No Children.”
When I interviewed Darnielle via email a few weeks back, I considered asking a question about “Up The Wolves,” simply because that fact that it was featured in an episode of “The Walking Dead” means a Mountain Goats song was heard was heard by 12 million people, more or less simultaneously, undoubtedly Darnielle’s largest audience to date. I mention that here because Saturday’s show was broadcast live on Iowa Public Radio, likely giving Darnielle his widest exposure in his one-time home state (not counting the aforementioned zombie show.”
Darnielle closed out the main set with what I believe was a version of “Song of The Three Children,” saying it was his first time performing it outside his house. He also mentioned that he had missed his calling as a youth minister.
After seeming perplex about how leave the stage in a wonderfully Spinal Tap-sequel moment, Darnielle briefly stopped behind the pulpit before returning to his mic for “Fall of the Star High School Running Back,” (written in Ames, Darnielle admitted to cribbing a character’s middle name from a local dentist) before closing the show (and heading to the lobby to chat with fans) with “Cubs in Five.”
I love that Maximum Ames has given me two entirely different opportunities to see one of my favorite artists. The festival isn’t as big and ambitious as its older sibling, Mission Creek in Iowa City, but every year it brings a variety of familiar faces, new acts and unbelievable gets to downtown Ames.

I hope Max Ames brings John back for year 10 as well.

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