Friday, February 3, 2012

On "Sir Arne's Treasure"

Keith Richards once said, every night there's a different world's greatest band in a different greatest venue. I agree. I don't know about tonight at the Fillmore, or next week at Webster Hall, or some night next month at the Whiskey. But on Tuesday night, that band was the Mountain Goats. On Tuesday night, the venue was the Castro Theatre.

** **

The night was special from the start, a showing of the 1919 Swedish silent movie Sir Arne's Theater, with the Mountain Goats providing the soundtrack. The San Francisco Film Society does this thing every year. One year it was Black Francis. Last year, it was Stephen Merritt from Magnetic Fields. I went to that one. It was interesting, I guess. A good anecdote. Tuesday night with the Mountain Goats, though. Tuesday night is historical.

Being the Castro and all, the show starts with the sounds of an ancient organ. A Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. We might as well be in 1958, the rolling, strolling melodic organ music filling the aged hall. A few minutes after eight, some guy from the San Francisco Film Society stands up front and speaks a few words about the series, and the film. Best print in the world. Sub-titles. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm here for the main event. I am here for the music.

Soon enough, the lights lower and the show starts quietly. John Darnielle sneaks into the pit and behind the piano, barely moving, slipping through the shadows. The film starts to roll and Mr. Darnielle watches with us, waiting for a cue. His fingers touch the ivory and a quiet tune begins, slowly, almost silently. Mr. Darnielle begins to sing, slowly, almost silently. The night begins. The set then moves between solo piano and solo guitar, between songs from the seminal Mountain Goats album, Sweden, and the great, infamous, never released Hail & Farewell Gothenburg. Some of the words sound familiar, some of the melodies do, too. And somehow they are completely new to me. Songs I've heard one hundred times are completely new to me.

The movie is a good one, I suppose, some romp through the Scottish countryside. Trees and snow. A betrayed woman. A cranky old lady. The print is crystal clear. The landscapes are rolling and wonderful. It means almost nothing to me, though. I am here for the music. And the music is good. The music is special.

Maybe half way through, the shadows of three men slither into the front row. Another minute passes and the three shadows creep into the pit, and gather up their instruments. An electric guitar. An upright bass. A small drum kit. The solo performance morphs into a quartet. The music starts quietly, slowly begins to grow. The name of the song is The Recognition Scene, a classic from the Sweden album. It rocks in a way I have never heard a band rock. It grows bigger and bigger, louder and louder. It is bigger than the venue. It is bigger than the whole goddamn city. I'd continue down this line, but I don't want to start getting into hyperbole.

The guys on the stage are having a great time, maybe a better time than me. John Vanderslice with his axe slung over his shoulder, churning out chords and notes, grinding them out. The skins are covered by Jason Slota, he is hitting them hard when the clouds are dumping rain on the screen; he barely scratches them as our heroine cries, slowly dies. The beat is kept, too, by Jamie Riotto, on stand-up bass. He is furious and subtle, pounding and poetic. The venue is buzzing. The night will last forever. The night is over in fifteen minutes. It is over before it began.

Truth be told, the set lasts about an hour twenty. It might as well have been five minutes. It was that seamless. There is no encore, but there are no encores in movie theaters. I walk out into the cold San Francisco air. The lights of the sign above me are bright, Castro above me. I feel the cold air on my skin. I look east. I look west. I collect my thoughts. I know what I have just seen, but it has not quite registered.

** **

People will surely look back years from now, listening to digitized versions of the show, dissecting and dicing every word, every note, trying in vain to touch the evening. I already found a copy on the web. It is going to be one of those recordings. The myth will become bigger than the music. The legend will grow larger than the night. Still, looking back just twenty-four hours later, I don't see how it could be. That's why, for last night at least, the Mountain Goats had their night, at the Castro Theatre, as the "world's greatest band." Keith sure knows what he is talking about.

By P. William Grimm. Mr. Grimm makes his home in San Francisco’s Mission District. A collection of his short stories, Valencia Street, available at, was published in 2011. His novel The Seventh was published in 2009, and his writings have been published in multiple on-line literary journals such as Annalemma Magazine and Eclectica.

Photograph, Corey Denis © 2010.

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