Lively banter outshone the so-so music Thursday at the Courtyard Cafe, as two sensitive, charismatic men won the audience through sheer likeability.
The first was John Vanderslice, who spoke in a deep, gripping tone that was sorely absent from his singing.
The second was John Darnielle, whose congested, wittily rambled monologues were equally engaging, but whose songs dearly missed the authority of his backing band, The Mountain Goats.
Vanderslice’s guitar opened the show with sturdy, driving scrapes that ticked like a high-hat. Tics soon rent by full-throated, jangling strums or piercing high twangs.
Over the ominous, driving chords his “verse voice” would intone and quaver and generally stoke the hairs on your neck.
I say “verse voice” because Vanderslice had two voices. One for verses and one for choruses.
His “verse voice” was a powerful and insistent tone that built mood and kept your attention.
His “chorus voice” was a series of soaring whines and emptily angelic whispers that invariably shattered the mood and majesty hard won by the verse.
The chorus was also your best chance for catching the lyrics. Though discerning Vanderslice’s words did not necessarily lead to understanding them.
Vanderslice has a penchant for poetical phrases that sound powerful but don’t actually mean anything. One particularly numbing string of metaphors included ‘eucalyptus piled high,’ ‘placing stone by stone’ and ‘waves a pounding shore.’
These non-statements were sometimes whispered over and over. In one song he kept saying “white dove.” Another time it was “It’s a trick of the mind.”
Vanderslice closed with epic audience participation. The already intimate press of the audience spilled onto the stage and he had everyone clap quarter notes while he thrashed his acoustic. The claps were shocking and mechanical and lent power to his energetic close.
Afterwards the crowd looked pleased, which is the only meaningful criteria. Vanderslice was an earnest, charismatic singer with a powerful voice and ho-hum songs.
Now before I speak of John Darnielle, let me caveat. His fans had a good time. For them the show was an intimate, emotional exchange with a beloved singer.
For newcomers, it was a solitary, middling guitarist where a full band should be.
Darnielle opened with a cover of “Free Falling.” Though he later complained of sickness, it was clear from the beginning that he had fine voice that occasionally dipped into the sublime.
But when he played his own tunes his energy level dropped. I wouldn’t have noticed if he didn’t brighten noticeably during a second cover, which was a comic take on “This Magic Moment.”
Does the throwaway nature of cover songs free him from the solemn burdens of his art? If so, I wish he’d approach his own creations with that same joyous abandon.
Darnielle’s own creations sounded a lot like Vanderslice’s, with competent, occasionally whiny vocals over poetical, occasionally befuddling lyrics.
Here’s an almost complete lyrical phrase. “…thousand rooms — have a glass filled with light — climbing up this mountain.” Good luck.
His songs also had the misfortune of multiple, guitar-only sections, which no acoustic could fill authoritatively.
Darnielle ended the show with a stomping sing-along. He perked up like he was singing a cover and launched into a rollicking hate-shanty. The affectionate audience sang and romped through every word.
After the show, the crowd that had come to see John Darnielle, had mostly enjoyed Darnielle.
Those out of the loop would probably have benefited from a few more Goats.
Photos by Gillian Gabriel