The Mountain Goats – September 24

John Darnielle, i.e. The Mountain Goats

Lauren and I shot out of The Fitzgerald Theater and headed straightway to Ames, Iowa (with just a slight detour to pick up her car at our house) for a Mountain Goats Concert. We’d had the trip timed to the minute, but, unfortunately, we underestimated A Prairie Home Companion’s running time by an hour…. So we needed to make up some time, which we were doing splendidly until we were pulled over mid-Iowa. As it turned out, our highway patrol officer, Mindy, knew and loved the Mountain Goats, but she was not superfan enough to give us a police escort. She did knock a few MPHs (which is short for “miles per hour,” not “masters of public health”, in case any of you failed to catch the context) off the citation, though. We continued to Ames and arrived at DG’s Tap House while the opening band was still playing.

Before The Mountain Goats went on, we were standing around by the bar, and we saw a guy at a table I was 95% sure was John Darnielle. I pointed him out to Lauren, and she was like, “He looks so much like a normal guy. Plus, why would no one else recognize him?” I agreed, and we did not talk to him. Next time, we will not be so foolish.

As with many of their performances, the band consisted solely of John Darnielle, and we managed to get spots right up front (literally like 2 yards from him). And rather than a set list he was taking nothing but requests. This worked out okay because the people there were mainly die-hard fans who’d driven from all over the Midwest to be there. Awesomely, the devoted audience requested all kinds of recondite songs, which they were happy to help him remember the exact lyrics and keys for, so it was more than just a barrage of best hits. Also awesomely, John had lived in Ames for several years, and he had all kinds of anecdotes about the place.

One of the high points of this concert, as, I should think, with many of his concerts, was the song No Children, which he told us was inspired by the song I Hope You Dance which he hated enough to write the exact antithesis of. Another high point was when John came out for the encore and said he’d always wanted to return to the stage, take a bow, and walk back off like concert pianists and such do, but then he didn’t! Instead, he treated us to about an hour more of music. Wonderful.

So, we didn’t get home until like 5 AM, and it was so incredibly worth it. See, John Darnielle started out making cassette tapes of himself back in the early 90s. The band has gone through several iterations, many of which consist of solo-John opening his one man show with, “Hi. We’re the Mountain Goats.” Still, with all that change and him just being one guy and not always having a record deal or anything, this man releases like an album per year, and they’re all good.

And by good, I mean pieces of lyric genius. Mountain Goats songs deal with untraditional and unpredictable topics, from vampire-cowboy-run-ins to insurance fraud to arson  to delicious jams and jellies (In case you didn’t pick up on it, each of those topics was a hyperlink. You’re welcome.) And in all these circumstances, he somehow treats all his characters with love, even as he points out the extreme and ridiculous in his characters.

What I love most about John Darnielle’s characters is that we so often meet them in moments of intense emotion. Enough of his characters are on the verge of having cataclysmic. When I listen to his songs, I get the idea that they’re having an Ivan Karamazov-style breakdown [Bro’s Karamazov spoiler alert! Also, awesomely, this song references Crime and Punishment.], wherein they see the light of salvation and realize the sacrifice necessary is far more hellish than anticipated. We find these characters in their moments of desperation, speaking with the kind of honesty you would think but not share with even your closest friend and only maybe with a paid professional.

He depicts characters most of us haven’t thought to identify with, but upon doing so, we find inexpressibly loveable. For example, in the song Grendel’s Mother, we meet (surprise!) Grendel’s mother storming Heorot to revenge her son’s murder. Contrary to the tale’s usual mood, Grendel’s inconsolable mother shows love for her son as intense as her loathing for his killer.

I find that Darnielle’s rush of contradicting emotions make his songs particularly accessible for we irrational and inconsistent humans. Rather than giving us pat answers or monolithic voices, his characters are often confused and troubled by contradicting motives. For example, in the song Old College Try, Darnielle’s character refers the love he has for his wife’s eyes, which, “like a trashcan fire in a prison cell; like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell” brighten up even the worst of places.

I think I’ve said enough. But there are about a zillion really great interviews with the guy online, which you can find using Google. In case you’re interested, his Twitter feed is insanely awesome. He’s currently giving away Thusydides II-58 for free to mark reaching 25,000 Twitter followers.

And, finally, in case you didn’t click on any of the wonderful hyperlinks I provided above, here are a few videos I trust you’ll find enjoyable.

He has a slew of songs that begin with the word “alpha” and chronicle the misadventures of the “alpha couple” who are constantly on the verge of divorce. Their story concludes in the album Tallahassee.

The album The Sunset Tree is about his physically abusive step-dad. Somehow he manages to still be remarkably peppy.

This is also from The Sunset Tree , and I think it’s fabulously intense:

He has a series of songs whose titles begin with the words “going to” and are all about running away from problems to some place that you hope promises you peace or answers or, anything but your current troubles. In this one, he threatens to do himself physical harm as a means of showing a girl how much he loves her.

In this one, he actually seems insane. It’s amazing.


A Prairie Home Companion – September 24

Sound guy Tom Keith, and voice actors Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Garrison Keillor on set of A Prairie Home Companion

Seeing A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor live was the fulfillment of my childhood dreams. Growing up, we did a lot of driving between my mom’s house (Centerville) and my dad’s house (Salina). My dad wasn’t a big fan of our favorite roadtrip pastimes (Such as this game where you replace one of the words on a billboard with the wordbooger. For example, the McDonald’s slogan would be transformed from “I’m lovin’ it” to “I’m lovin’ boogers.” Endless fun.), so he would turn on NPR to shut us up. Hence, Garrison Keillor became something of a non-interactive, third parent who was present on all road trips.

We even had tales from Lake Wobegon cassettes. I remember countless afternoons in the hammock on the back patio, eating fudge sickles and listening to stories about the rhubarb pie, the Sidetrack Tap, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, et al. I’ll admit that Garrison Keillor was a factor that made my move to Minnesotan tundra far more palatable. A state inhabited by good natured people like the hot-dish-giving Krebsbachs couldn’t be too bad.

The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band with Nick Lowe

With all this anticipation, hearing Garrison start a story with, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…” and interrupting his story every so often with his soft nasal wheezing, well, it was probably like it would be for some other member of my generation to finally see The Spice Girls live or something. Basically, it was incredible. The set is designed to look like a Midwestern porch front. The sound effects are all one guy. The voices are all done by three people, plus a few guest stars. The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band really are all stars! I couldn’t stop being impressed by how few people were involved in making this thing happen. Talent!

I’m not going to go into detail about the particulars of the actual show because I won’t do it justice, and the whole thing will be far more enjoyable if you simply give it a listen here or on iTunes. Suffice it to say, the evening was every bit as delightful as is this three minute clip:

Weekend o’ Fun: Duluth, Trampled by Turtles, Willie Nelson, Lake Superior – August 6 & 7

Ranell with a bag+mouthlul of hot tamales.

As with all road trips, the fun began before we’d even got out of town. Mike offered us some enormous hot tamales which were the hottest thing I’ve ever eaten and which only one man has has ever managed to eat more than two consecutively, and it burned a searing hot hole not just through his tongue, but straight out the bottom of his jaw. So we decided to have a feat of taste bud strength and each hold one in our mouth, without chewing, as long as we could. The winner would get a prize to the equivalent of ten dollars. Well, turns out if you don’t chew them, they’re not very hot at all. But they do make you talk hilariously, quite a bit like in this memorable scene from My Fair Lady.

About an hour and a half into our drive, we saw a sign for a place called Wacky Yakky’s Magical Soda Shop and Emporium of Treasures. Of course we took the next exit and went straight there. We were delighted to find that the place promised more than we’d dared hope. The signs on the exterior read as follows:

  • Wacky Yacky's

    Italian Charms

  • Wind Chimes
  • Sign Designs by L.M. Redlin
  • Body Jewelry
  • Cement Art
  • Water Fall MOtion Pictures
  • Knives
  • Crafts
  • Gifts
  • Metal Signs by Lazor
  • Chainsaw Carvings
  • Live Theater
  • DJ
  • Magician
  • Dance Teacher
  • Clown

Unfortunately, the place left a bit to be desired. It mainly had a lot of used VHS tapes and some locally made soy wickless candles (I felt a bit guilty after handling all their goods, so I bought some Oakmoss & Amber wickless candle wax, and it has actually been quite lovely).

We stopped off again in Moose Lake, which I was very excited about after having heard it repeatedly referenced in VeggieTales. Lunch at the Lazy Moose and a really delicious piece of lemon crisp pie. Recommended!

Blue Bear (the short-lived band and candy) at one of Canal Park's many high end candy boutiques

Lazy Moose Grille & Coffee House, Moose Lake, MN








Once we got to Duluth, we checked out the shops at Canal Park, ate some high end chocolates, looked at books, and talked to a very nice lady about local fiddle festivals.

We also drove over the famous Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge. In 1871, a canal was built that turned a residential peninsula into an island. Since it was on the other side of a canal where boats needed to cross often, it would be really inconvenient to put a bridge there. So they held a contest to figure out a solution.

Duluth's Famous Aerial Bridge

John Alexander Low Waddell came up with the winning Aerial Lift solution, but the War Department decided to do what they always do: change the rules of the game and do whatever they wanted anyway! America! So, people used ferries for a long time, until everybody realized this was inefficient and inconvenient. So, about 40 years later, they decided to do what Waddell had suggested originally and built this lift bridge that can move up and down to get out of boats’ ways.

Willie times onboard the Nelsonmobile

Then we went to Goodwill to buy rain jackets because it had been raining vengefully all day. The woman at Goodwill was convinced we were going to get on Willie Nelson’s bus and be on the news. She was SO excited for us. Some other people told us if we’d give Willie a rose he’d give us his bandana. I did a lot of Googling but couldn’t substantiate this rumor.


We ate dinner at Fitgers Brewery and Grille. Root beer from a tap! While I appreciate the novelty, it was less flavorful than I prefer. Also, as an FYI, the service was really quite slow, so, if you go there, make sure you have plenty of time or ask for your check as soon as your food comes (that’s what we did). Also, I had a veggie pub burger which I would eat it again. ALSO, and most significantly, the brewery is in the very building is where a 17-year old Bob Dylan stood just three feet from Buddy Holly in concert. Cool!

Then to the concert. Amazing. Trampled by Turtles gave an awesome show for their home town. Beautiful Lake Superior was the backdrop. Willie played almost nonstop for two hours. Good stories; he’s the kind of guy I’d like to go on vacation with. Vacation to Duluth. We did not get on the bus, unfortunately. And he did not give us a bandana. I am also proud to say that my folk-square dancing made a few people’s home videos. At one point, a couple were running through the crowd and stopped to dance, Julia-style, as they passed me. Win!

From above Gooseberry Falls

Next day, we saw Gooseberry Falls, which were lovely but very crowd-packed. The “hike” to them was paved and more of a stroll, but the view from there was lovely. I realized afterward that I think I would have been blown away by the falls if I’d hiked seven miles to get to them. Utah is all about making you work for your scenery. If a person in a wheelchair can access it, it’s probably not worth seeing.

Then we went to Lake Superior. Everyone said it would be too cold to swim, but I doffed my duds and ran straighway into the water, undaunted. Everyone else eventually joined in, and we had a wonderful time. Also, the rumors are true: looking out at Lake Superior was like looking out at the ocean. Not the tropical kind, but what I imagine the British Columbia coast is like. Trees and rocks and water. The maritime effect evinced itself even more in that I kept marveling that I didn’t have a salty taste in my mouth. Lake Superior!

To close, enjoy these videos of Willie Nelson:


and Trampled by Turtles:

Pirates of Penzance at Lake Harriet – July 16

I attended the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company and Minneapolis Pops Orchestra‘s concert version of The Pirates of Penzance at the Lake Harriet Bandshell as part of a friend’s birthday celebration, and I very much enjoyed it. The company were all dressed in beach attire and did a fairly low-key dramatization that was nonetheless high quality.

Lake Harriet Bandshell

This was my first time ever attending a production of a Gilbert & Sullivan show. Because of my encyclopedic knowledge of 90’s cartoons, I was familiar with many of their tunes, so it was nice to see them in context and with their original lyrics – which are rumored to be super witty. Unfortunately, the acoustics at the bandshell aren’t the most conducive to lyrics, but, from what I caught, the rumors were true. Wit abounded.

The event was made even more enjoyable because its sponsors, Larabars, were handing out as many mini bar samples as you’d wanted. And I wanted several handfuls. Delicious, healthy, organic, and generally-expensive-but-this-time-free!

Here’s a German-language Animaniacs rendition of I Am the Very Model of a Cartoon Individual, lifted (and taken liberties with) from The Pirates of Penzance.

Kurdish Food and Live Music – July 9

I highly recommend Babani’s Kurdish Restuarant in St. Paul. We got some Kurdish bread as an appetizer. It’s basically like a loaf of French bread, but the crust was a bit lighter and flakier, and the inside was a bit moister but slightly less fluffy. A definite win, in my mind. For dinner, I got the biryani which is a rice dish stuffed with all kinds of delicious surprises: raisins, potatoes, peas, noodles, carrots, and spices. Fabulous. I’d definitely get it again.

I also guzzled some Kurdish lemonade which some say tastes heavenly. I beg to differ. It’s amber in color because it’s made from dried lemons and honey, which both sound pretty good, but the result tastes like lemon Kool-Aid with a cup of extra sugar. Per glass. Also, I’ve never had dried lemon, but I do wonder what are the flavor benefits of drying out the lemon before grinding it into juice (it is pretty thick and pulpy, which actually was quite nice). Perhaps that accounted for the slight limey taste (Or perhaps not, I’m no gastronomist, after all.), which also sounds amazing, but just wasn’t quite. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate it. It was decent and certainly worth the try. But Kurdish lemonade comes in fairly low in my unwritten lemonade rankings.

And to finish off my opinions of Babini’s, the location is superb, parking was no trouble at all, and the service was spectacular. Recommended!

After Babani’s! we went to a free concert at Vic’s. I’ve been Googling and Googling, and I can’t figure out who it was that played. They were quite good, though. I’m proud to say that we were some of the first dancers on the floor, and it wasn’t long before the place was really hopping. Here are some pictures of the unknown band. Sorry I can’t give them a promo. Here’s a picture of them performing.