The Mountain Goats and Anonymous 4 bridge the centuries at Merkin Concert Hall

Anonymous four and John Darnielle, right, of the Mountain Goats at Merkin Concert Hall

UPDATE: Audio link to full concert added

Hear the full concert by clicking here.

Who knew John Darnielle had a secret wish to work with Anonymous 4, the a cappella quartet that specializes in music of the 12th through 15th centuries? The Ecstatic Music Festival, created by New Amsterdam RecordsJudd Greenstein, gave him a shot, and the result was Transcendental Youth, a song cycle presented Saturday,  March 24, at Merkin Concert Hall.

Darnielle, the writer and singer who performs as the Mountain Goats (and for this evening, he was the lone Goat) got the “why” question out of the way first.
As he was getting ready to finish college, his dad gave him a gift — a CD of A4’s 1993 An English Ladymass— an intense listen, he said, and one he returned to over and over as he coped with the more mundane stresses of completing two thesis papers (in English and Classics).

The Mountain Goats set list is after the jump.

John Darnielle (Photo © 2010, Steven P. Marsh)

Still, the pairing seemed unlikely. While both have made deeply spiritual music, could Darnielle create a work that would successfully mesh their styles — his, hyper-verbose, raw and ripped-from-the-gut,  and A4’s ethereal and polished?

Before they came together, the artists performed their own sets. A4 (Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Marsha Genensky) chose some “greatest hits” and Darnielle pulled together two new songs and a few others from across the years that mirrored the themes explored in Transcendental Youth. As Darnielle writes in the program, TY “consists of songs sung by narrators who are mentally ill” — a term he doesn’t like, but “that’s what we have.” Reading between the lines a bit, this wasn’t a work that was conceived as a collaboration with A4, but songs Darnielle wrote for a Mountain Goats album [Editor’s note: Darnielle has jokingly referred to the album-in-progress as “the Satan record.”]and later had reworked to feature the four singers (the violinist and composer Owen Pallett, who joined Darnielle for part of the set, gets credit for the arrangements). A4 had their work cut out for them — a few of the vocal arrangements proved devilishly difficult — and Darnielle was awe of the whole experience (“I can’t even believe this is happening,” he gushed after the first song). There he was, in his all his giddy, unvarnished glory, playing off some of the most accomplished, professional singers in the music biz. Instrumental accompaniment was spare — Darnielle on either acoustic guitar or piano. On one song, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite,” he joined the quartet a cappella.

It wasn’t clear from the program or the performance whether this was a one-off (two-off, really — it’ll be performed at the Barbican in London on April 2) or something we could hope to hear again. A second listen is needed to unravel some of the mysteries. If you were hearing the songs for the first time and concentrating on Darnielle’s delivery of his own lyrics, it’s a good bet you weren’t able to pick up much of what A4 were singing. (Darnielle helped out with one song — “I hand you over to be punished by my children,” which he said was an ancient Roman text.) Still the result was sonically spectacular — and well received by the crowd that seemed to be dominated by Mountain Goats fans that were left wanting more.

Mountain Goats set list:

Tribe of the Horned Heart (new song)
In the Shadow of the Western Hills (new song)
Slow West Vultures
Hail St. Sebastian
Your Belgian Things
Wild Sage
Moon Over Goldsboro
1 John 4:16
Enoch 18:14

The Mountain Goats and Anonymous 4

Until I Am Whole
Night Light
Spent Gladiator II
In Memory of Satan
White Cedar
Lakeside View Apartments Suite
Counterfeit Florida Plates

Encore at the end of the program:

Cut Off Their Thumbs

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