Folk music of different stripes in different places ruled Grand Rapids Thursday, with The Mountain Goats unfurling quirky faves at Calvin College and Kottke regaling a sold-out St. Cecilia.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For West Michigan fans of folk music of different flavors and different eras, Thursday night represented a special alignment of inspiring art, with legendary acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke playing a sold-out concert at St. Cecilia Music Center and The Mountain Goats firing up a Calvin College crowd at the Covenant Fine Arts Center. Local Spins reviewers Tricia Woolfenden and Charley Honey were there to soak up the magic.
John Darnielle is first and foremost a storyteller.
Whether penning a novel or crafting a quirky indie tune, Darnielle — who sings and plays guitar and keys for his band, The Mountain Goats — knows how to spin a yarn. The band’s Thursday evening show at Calvin College’s Covenant Fine Arts Center featured an audience that was ready to bask in Darnielle’s singular brand of speaking/singing, dark humor and tightly-wound stage energy.
Some in attendance were especially primed for the show, having caught Darnielle’s appearance earlier in the day at the college’s Festival of Faith and Writing, where he spoke about his 2014 novel, “Wolf in the White Van.”
All in attendance, however, were privy to Darnielle’s standout writing skills. That’s the thing about The Mountain Goats which has always appealed: Even if a song’s particular chord progression or vocal delivery doesn’t land directly in one’s wheelhouse, there is always an interesting character to meet or a turn of phrase to consider. He’s a writer’s writer/singer, that Darnielle.
Thursday’s 70-minute-plus performance boasted 18 songs, a fair number of which were taken from 2015’s “Beat the Champ,” a conceptual album about professional wrestling. The diverse setlist also included three acoustic songs with just Darnielle, who originally played solo under The Mountain Goats name but now routinely plays with a band (that includes sax – yes!).
Other show standouts included “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” (from 2012’s “Transcendental Youth”), “Up the Wolves” (from 2005’s “The Sunset Tree”) and the larger-than-life sound of “The Young Thousands” (from 2004’s “We All Shall Be Healed”).
It was a bummer to not hear “This Year,” arguably one of the band’s quintessential numbers. A few good-natured grumbles were overheard to that effect as folks exited the venue. But it seems beyond petty to quibble about one missing song when one has been gifted with such a heartfelt and engaging performance.
(See example: Darnielle strolling through the audience sans mike while singing during the encore.)
(See second example: Darnielle un-ironically playing a few bars of a favorite hymnal before launching into a song about losing one’s faith.)
Show opener and solo artist William Tyler, also known for his work in Lambchop and Silver Jews, stunned the crowd with his virtuoso guitar skills. Without the benefit of vocals or additional instrumentation, Tyler held court for 40 minutes of dreamy, layered string work. And if ever there was an ideal crowd to match Tyler with, it may be Calvin’s, which, as always, was attentive, polite and appreciative. – Tricia Woolfenden
ACOUSTIC GUITAR MASTER LEO KOTTKE HOLDS COURT AT SOLD-OUT ST. CECILIA SHOW
Seeing Leo Kottke perform live is like spending a comforting evening with an old friend, alternately laughing at his outlandish stories and being amazed at the musical wonders he works.
The enduring guitar master was that friend for a sold-out crowd of 650 at St. Cecilia Music Center Thursday night, equally entertaining us with his goofy ramblings, boyish grin and still-stunning finger-picking skills.
St. Cecilia’s elegant intimacy and crisp, warm acoustics were ideal for a night of Kottke artistry, as he worked the quieter quarters of his five-decades-strong repertoire of idiosyncratic folk, blues, pop and classical music. From the lovely “Ojo” off his 1969 debut album, “6- and 12-String Guitar,” to a contemplative rendering of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and the lyrical “Wonderland by Night,” Leo often held the hushed audience in a state of something like reverence.
But he had them roaring in between the 15 songs of his 90-minute set, as he spoke of his pants falling down on an Amsterdam stage, listening in agony to a 7-foot, 92-year-old ukulele player and how to banish earworms by singing them backwards. “Just in case you don’t know what an evil hook is, I would suggest ‘Yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy,’” he cracked, in reference to the 1968 ditty by Ohio Express.
Kottke, 70, also kept St. Cecilia Education Director Martha Cudlipp busy with repeated requests for Post-It Notes and other backstage supplies for his constant guitar-gear fiddling. “Are you in the union?” he asked her at one point.
Of course, his guitar spoke most eloquently, whether on the playful “William Powell,” the crackling “Last Steam Engine Train” or the powerfully percussive “Wet Floor.” Strong as iron and delicate as lace, his fingers seem to dig for ever new possibilities of what sounds a guitar can make.
And as his deep voice sang evergreen favorites like “Julie’s House,” “Pamela Brown” and “Rings,” Leo brought back years of warm memories, like an old friend. — Charley Honey
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