by juli boggs
Front Porch Festival in Livermore, Calif.? I’d never heard of it either, but $20 got you in the gate this past Saturday for the seven-band afternoon at Wente Vineyards where middle aged locals flocked to $5 wine frappes, $10 bottles, and a few hours of Americana easy-listening. A grip of festival-hopping, woven sunhat, crocheted bra top young adults had also bussed in for the only two readily identifiable bands on the bill, The Dodos and The Mountain Goats.
I took to the concession stand for a couple of pinot grigio slushies and a hand-full of mozzarella sticks, the less sophisticated festival take on the popular wine and cheese pairing. With the sun and the booze and the band on stage performing only just well enough to ignore, I curled up on the ground blanket we’d brought and easily fell asleep. When I awoke The Dodos had come and gone and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats was preparing to close out the night. We navigated the short lawn strewn with folding chairs and portable picnic tables where sun-burned winos had been camped out all afternoon. As we took our attentive places at the foot of the stage we realized our bodies as a human barrier of fandom between the casual observers behind and the artist up in front, who had emerged to a din of persistent applause.
Standing alone on the small stage, Darnielle was not so much playing a show as leading a conversation with everyone attendant, which occasionally reminded him of a song. Listening to his quick acoustic strums and crisply annunciated lyrics became an engrossing exploration of dark and often poignant human emotions as he lead the audience continually deeper into his narrative. The crowd stood attentively as he variously recounted in song the mournful drive through a forsaken desert, watching a woman give birth in a San Bernadino hotel room, careening down highways young and angry late at night, harvesting organs in a secret colony on the moon… Between songs there was an entire cohesive dialog where he responded to almost every comment and question shouted out. The crowd would give him advice on what to play next and at times when he forgot the verses to what he was singing and politely addressed the audience for help, someone would just as politely feed him the line and the show went on.
At the end of the night when the plug had been pulled and curfew hung heavy but an encore was still in order, everyone sat with their legs crossed on the grass as John hopped down and walked around, giving high fives, mussing up hair, and holding a fallen water bottle in place of a microphone as everyone belted out the ever-therapeutic lyrics of the song that ends every Mountain Goats show, “I am drowning/ There is no sign of land/ You are coming down with me/ Hand in unlovable hand!”
Turning to make our way back through the lawn maze, it’s discovered that everyone who was not standing at the front had long since gone. The trashcans had been emptied and the lawn picked up, the concession stands packed away and the lights turned off. A handful of winery employees stood in the walkway, gesturing towards the front gate and emptied parking lot beyond towards which we descend, like nothing ever happened.