Mount Eerie, the solo project of songwriter Phil Elverum, performed to a hushed crowd at a rare seated show in the WOW Hall on Tuesday, April 4th. This show followed the release of his eighth LP written under the Mount Eerie moniker entitled A Crow Looked At Me. The album details the pain and emptiness surrounding the passing of his wife, Geneviève Castrée, in July of 2016 to pancreatic cancer. At this show, the audience was let into the deeply personal experience of Elverum’s grieving process while he performed the songs off of this most recent album.
The show began with a performance from Lori Goldston, a classically trained cellist whose work includes collaborations with the bands Earth and Nirvana, with her most recognizable work most likely being her appearance on Nirvana’s acclaimed live album MTV Unplugged in New York. She took the stage quietly as the audience clapped. She then gave a subtle nod to the crowd and sat down to play. Her set consisted of drone-like cello playing through a small amplifier, filled with long drawn out notes. The audience was transfixed and time seemed to pass almost unnoticed. Soon Goldston set down her bow, without a break in the music, and began to pluck the strings of her cello with her fingers. During this time she created intricate chords, striking multiple strings at once, and shifted into a quieter and more songful sound as she plucked out various melodies. She finished off the first part of her performance by transitioning smoothly into a gentle whistle, and eventually trailing off into the first and only musical break in her set. The audience clapped once again. In the latter half of her set, Goldston returned to using her bow and created a subtle distorted sound by running her cello through a pedal board. It was a powerful performance, but at no moment was it overbearing.
Phil Elverum took the stage shortly after, bringing with him just an acoustic guitar and his water bottle. The stage was sparse, with just two monitors, a microphone, and a chopped down tree lying on its side which helped to fill the space. He greeted and thanked the audience and started off his set with a new song, one that didn’t appear on the album. It was a longer song, and the lyrics stringed together memories from Elverum’s childhood, his first experience with death, as well as a story about a pregnancy scare from his early twenties, among other things. A portion of the song described a Jack Kerouac documentary Elverum had seen, in which Kerouac’s daughter gave a candid depiction of her father. He then made a point about Kerouac’s poor parenting skills and left enough room between lyrics to get out the joke, “Deadbeat dad. Get it?” As everyone caught on to the wordplay, there was unexpected laughter which dispelled some of the tension in a crowd full of people who had prepared for a night of painfully honest songs about death.
“Real Death” was the next song on the setlist, which is found on the new album as the firs track. “Death is real,” he sang, “Someone’s there and then they’re not, and it’s not for singing about. It’s not for making into art.” It was hard to hear these lyrics coming from a man who is obviously still struggling with and processing the loss of someone he greatly loved. He continued to sing, “All fails. My knees fail, my brain fails, words fail.” Nearly every line hit hard. Throughout the show, the imagery in Elverum’s lyrics were brutally effective, and it became hard to reconcile their artfulness with the heartbreaking events they were describing. He allowed the audience into an experience with him, one that nobody wishes to experience firsthand.
“Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” he sang during the song “My Chasm.” It was a weird moment to hear him sing those lyrics during a show, thinking about how everyone there had gone out of their way to buy a ticket and attend. About three quarters of the way through his performance, he spoke in between songs saying, “This is fucked up, right?”There was a sympathetic laugh from the audience. “It is, but I’ve got more of it,” he said, and he continued on with the show.
Of course, Phil Elverum’s experience does not seem fair. It also hardly seems right for us to have such an intimate view into his life during this horrible time. In the end, these songs are for him and his wife. This show was part of a long and personal grieving process, a process that continued to take place after I returned to my car and drove home, and one that will continue long after this tour finishes as well. I respect his vulnerability. My heart goes out to Phil Elverum, and I am thankful for being able to witness a performance I know will stick with me for a long time.