Thursday, March 24, 2011

Beautiful Gas Mask Memories

It's gotten to the point where every band that plays the National says what a great venue it is.

Sometimes they praise the amenities, other times its historic beauty, but it reliably gets a shout out from the stage.

I'm there so frequently that my shout outs come from within: the wristband guy ("Where you been? Ooh, like the tights!"), the drummer/bartender who agreed that it was going to be a memorable show ("I think John Darnielle is an amazing songwriter") and the assorted musicians in the crowd ("I expected to see you here").

A couple of songs in and my longtime music buddy showed up at my side, having known exactly where to find me.

We both noted the non-sold out house (he even extended his long arms to prove how much room we had), the first in a long time for either of us at the National.

It was nice to have some breathing room.

Tonight's opening band, Megafun (high-energy folkies from Durham) not only praised The National, but also gave props to local band Fight the Big Bull.

First they asked how many people knew of them, and while there was a definite response, I was honestly surprised that it wasn't larger.

Praising their music, calling them good friends (and wishing FTBB bassist Cameron a happy birthday), the drummer insisted that the audience say their name slowly out loud and make a point to go see them.

I have and I will again and with any luck, others will take heed, too.

Megafun had much going for them: all three sang, the acoustic guitar player pranced across stage like he was a rock star, the banjo player's illustrative hand motions and their boundless energy onstage broke every stereotype of sedate folk music.

It was the first night of the tour, although they had opened for Mountain Goats before.

"We love how respectful Mountain Goats' audience is," they said and it was true; tonight's crowd was practically using their listening room behavior, for the most part only talking during song breaks.

Richmond musicians, including many from FTBB, were everywhere.

It was all very civilized for a Thursday evening.

After intermission The Mountain Goats took the stage and unlike the days when that meant that it was just John Darnielle up there, he was accompanied by a drummer, bass player and keyboard/guitarist, all looking quite dapper under pink lights.

After the first two songs, Darnielle took the set list from his pocket, unfolded it and said, "Oh, no!"

As the crowd waited for an explanation, he told us that it was the first night of the tour and they were playing a lot of songs they had never played live before.

This became amusingly clear when they began a song and moments in, he ended it.

"Let's start over," he said, turning to the keyboardist. "What key is this in? C? I got lost."

When told it was e-minor, he responded woefully, "E-minor is the saddest chord."

I turned to my music buddy, who confirmed this as truth.

Part of the pleasure of witnessing opening night on tour was the lack of stale stage banter and the sense that everything was unfolding for the band as it was for the audience.

Darnielle said at one point, "You'll be able to say you were at that Richmond show when we sang "Liza Forever Minnelli" before we knew we shouldn't."

There was no song they shouldn't have sung and given Darniell's prolificacy, there was much to choose from.

This listener was happy to hear anything they were willing to play, maybe especially "Woke Up New," but it's hard to deny the pleasures of "Jenny," "Beautiful Gas Mask" or "Estate Sale Sign."

After a three-song encore, including a Silkworm cover, the lights came up and the spell was broken.

Walking down Broad Street, my buddy admitted that it was one of the best shows he'd ever seen and there was no arguing that.

Standing on the corner of 8th and Broad discussing the show, a car careened around the corner, windows down.

"Hey, we like your legs!" two of the guys called out in unison.

Looking at my friend, I rolled my eyes.

"This is my life," I said.

"I know," he replied for the hundredth time, having previously heard this complaint from me, before asking what shows I'd be seeing this weekend.

I ran down the list and within moments, we were talking bands and shows.

Actually, that's probably a better indicator of what my life is.

Happily, I feel no need to roll my eyes about it.

It just is.

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