John Darnielle ( of the Mountain Goats) made no pretense about his lack of guitar chops Thursday night at his sold-out Black Cat show. He nonchalantly asked his accompanist, Peter Hughes, which fret to put his capo on for the rousing "No Children," and he described his early songs as "written by a young man who couldn't play the guitar but meant well." The hour-long set featured pounded chords that accented his distinctive nasal voice.
That simple guitar style worked to Darnielle's advantage: Anything more complicated would have detracted from his lyrics, which are his real forte. He delivered his songs in sentences rather than as verse, so his narratives came across as short stories, most often focused on unhealthy or failing relationships. Whether Darnielle described cranking up his stereo volume to drown out his parents' arguments ("Dance Music") or running away from troubles with a friend ("Commandante"), his percussive delivery conveyed the urgency of his subjects' bleak situations.
Darnielle set his guitar aside after breaking a string during the encore, but he proceeded to sing "Jenny," backed only by Hughes's bass. The lyrics painted a carefree attitude that Darnielle captured in his delivery, unburdened by an instrument, as if to prove how inessential the guitar truly was to that song.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Gruff Rhys's two solo albums scan like demos of songs that his band -- ingenious Welsh rockers Super Furry Animals -- would turn into swirling psychedelic folk epics. That bare-bones directness, though, is what makes 2005's "Yr Atal Genhedlaeth" (sung entirely in Welsh) and this year's "Candylion" so appealing. Rhys's decision to tour behind "Candylion" is not only a treat for Furries diehards, but a chance to look inside the idiosyncratic music factory in his head. At his entertaining show at the Rock & Roll Hotel on Thursday, the singer-songwriter offered spacey, deadpan banter as entertaining as his off-kilter pop gems.
Joined by Lisa Jen of the Welsh band 9 Bach, who sang, played xylophone and percussion and a tableful of gadgets (keyboards, samplers, wind-up toys), Rhys reinvented songs from both records, salted with a couple of traditional Welsh songs. Keyed to his acoustic guitar, tunes such as "Candylion," "The Court of King Arthur" and "Con Carino" were lovely, low-key pop charmers that Jen's high harmonies infused with a folkish lament. Rhys's impish electro-pop spirit emerged when he cranked up his sampler, layering voice, a drum machine and sound effects on "Gwn Mi Wn," smearing "Cycle of Violence" into a ear-splitter that evoked its name, and somehow turning both parts of "Pwdin Wy" into a twisted Welsh torch song that ended up in an Internet cafe in the Belizean rain forest.
The nearly 15-minute encore, "Skylon!" -- Rhys handed out reading material for anyone who might become bored by its length -- went further afield: a surreal toe-tapper concerning an airline near-disaster for which he and Jen donned life jackets. That quarter-hour alone was equal to a solo career.
-- Patrick Foster