The Mountain Goats Find a Unique Home at The Caverns for Their One-of-a-Kind Sound

The lights turn a deep green, creating shadows in the crags of the cave walls, and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats begins a gentle rendition of “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack. The crowd thins, as if people aren’t sure what Darnielle’s plan is, using this time to get another beer. Arms sway in the air like anemones in the dark. The song slows, Darnielle sings and when you get the chance / to sit it out or dance, pausing before the chorus—and then the lights go blue and the crowd erupts as the band launches into “No Children” from their 2002 album Tallahassee.

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What had previously been reminiscent of a chill jam session exploded into a full-bodied earth-shaker as fans jumped and shouted, screaming I am drowning / there is no sign of land / you are coming down with me / hand in unlovable hand and letting it echo off the walls of The Caverns.

Located in Pelham, Tennessee, about an hour south of Nashville, The Caverns is a natural cave formation turned music venue, tucked away at the end of twisting roads and remote farmland. It’s a cool 65 degrees out to make the short downhill trek to the mouth of the cave, which is fixed with tall double doors leading into the venue itself.

“Psychedelic Allegory of the Disco Cave”: The Mountain Goats at The Caverns, April 21, 2024

The first thing that catches the eye is the stage, nestled against the back of the cave in a wide alcove. The ceiling is just low enough to remind you that, yes, you are actually inside a cave watching The Mountain Goats for the first time. Blue and purple lights illuminate the crags and crevices in the walls, casting long shadows across the ceiling. It’s nothing short of ethereal, like something out of a psychedelic allegory of the disco cave. A huge mirror ball hangs from the ceiling, turning slowly like a silent spectator.

The Mountain Goats take the stage—John Darnielle, Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes, Matt Douglas, and Rachel Ware—following an opening set by Katy Kirby. Darnielle introduces every song with not much fanfare, seemingly warming up the crowd with “Azo Tle Nelli In Tlalticpac,” “Sicilian Crest,” “Make You Suffer,” “Extraction Point,” “Water Tower,” “Dark In Here,” and “Fresh Tattoo” in the first half.

Darnielle shines in his three-song solo set. Sitting at the piano, the crowd falls silent as he plays through “Transcendental Youth.” He ends with a cover of Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon,” a coal mining song that resonates with everyone gathered deep in the cave.

I Am Gonna Make It Through This Year If It Kills Me

The second half kicks off with “Jenny III,” transitioning into “Abandoned Flesh,” “In Memory of Satan,” “Bell Swamp Connection,” “Woke Up New,” and “Only Takes A Few.” They play fan favorite “No Children” followed by “This Year” from The Sunset Tree, and the crowd goes absolutely bananas. When they seemingly end the show on that high note, the cave nearly shakes with the force of a thousand feet stomping in perfect unison—one more song, one more song, one more song.

The Mountain Goats deliver four more songs. “Tidal Wave” kicks things off a bit slow for an encore, but there’s something about John Darnielle’s desperate voice echoing on not every wave is a tidal wave that just hits different in a cave. The encore ends with “Up the Wolves,” and the crowd screams along when Darnielle hits the lines, I’m gonna bribe the officials / I’m gonna kill all the judges / It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage.

The show ends exactly at 9 p.m. The lights come up in the cave, everyone sees each other for the first time, and we are all glowing with the afterlight of witnessing pure poetry in motion. Of screaming the words I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me with a thousand other people and really meaning it.

Featured Image via Lauren Boisvert

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