All photos: Mike Danko; All words: Philip Runco
“Modest Mouse are set to take the summer by storm,” an April 24th press release on modestmousemusic.com announced. It then went on to specify that the set of dates would span a whole six nights. For those that may have been wondering: Isaac Brock and company may have effectively dropped off the grid for the last few years, but their dry sense of humor has remained firmly intact.
The Portland band was lured off the couch, or out of the studio, or away from whatever takes up Modest Mouse’s time these days, for a pair of festival appearances on the east coast last weekend – first the Metallica-curated Orion Music Festival in Atlantic City, then the rock half of NYC’s bipolar Governor’s Ball. So with the greater New York area doing the heavy lifting for us, here came Modest Mouse on Wednesday and Thursday for back-to-back tune-up nights at the 9:30 Club.
The good news (for people who like good news) is that Modest Mouse sounded like an act prepared to fill spaces larger than the 9:30 Club and it deployed that expansive sound in the service of a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set. Over the course of twenty songs, the band visited each of its LPs (save for the underdeveloped early effort Sad Sappy Sucker), sprinkling fan favorites like “Dramimine,” “Cowboy Dan,” and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” alongside more obvious crossovers “Gravity Rides Everything” and, of course, “Float On.”
A word on the latter: If Modest Mouse wasn’t still collecting new licensing checks and laughing hard on the long way to bank, it would be tempting to think Brock viewed the song as an albatross around his neck. On Wednesday, the band snuck it into the seventh slot of the performance, a move that translates loosely to “We don’t really want to play this, but, fuck it, here you go.” But even after the Kidz Bop rendition, Lupe Fiasco’s shameless repurposing, and countless performances on competitive singing programs, I’d be lying if the slightly insipid anthem didn’t still bring down the house, drawing even the most inspired of cynics into a communal sing-along with Brock’s mangled yelps.
It’s easy to forget just how weird an instrument Brock’s voice can be, but its elasticity (or, maybe more accurately, spasticity) was on full display. Hard-charging rave-ups like “Dance Hall” and “Bury Me With It” showed off its comically sinister extreme – something akin to a backwoods Tom Waits – but there was more of a thrill to hearing it wheez and flail in the throws of slower-building finales of “Broke” and “Wild Pack of Family Dogs.”
His banter with the audience came with a smile that hid an undercurrent of prickliness. “I came to DC today with a dream,” he said at one point. “A dream that I would get a job complaining about the heat. But, no, everyone already got that job. It’s a sweet job – the complaining about the heat job.” While his northwest compatriot Doug Martsch once sang, “As long as it’s talking to you, talk of the weather will do,” that’s apparently not a sentiment Brock would like to align himself with: he would kindly ask residents of the District to shut the fuck up about how hot it is already.
The collection of musicians backing Brock was a formidable six deep (including a second drummer whose presence seemed wholly unnecessary), but it was perhaps more notable for its exclusions than inclusions. Of particular note, Eric Judy – whose off-kilter, melodic bass lines were just as integral to Modest Mouse’s sound than what Brock brings to the table as a guitarist and vocalist – was nowhere in sight. It remains to be seen whether Judy just opted to stay out west for this short excursion or if it’s is an indication of another founding member press the ejection button, but if it’s the latter, his presence will be sorely missed as the band (presumably) continues work on a forthcoming LP.
The band offered a sneak peak of that Big Boi-assisted record with two songs: a languid number called “Ansel” which opened the encore and the hiccupy stomper “Heart of Mine,” both of which fell safely in the band’s wheelhouse. (It also slipped in an unexpected, enjoyably rollicking cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”)
A less troubling absence was Johnny Marr, a seminal guitarist whose presence in Modest Mouse for a few years at the end of the last decade never transcended hired-gun status. The good news (for people who like bad news) is that the lack of Marr did not translate into a skimping of the one full-length he played on, the band’s underwhelming We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, from which it plucked “Fire it Up,” “Dashboard,” “Education,” and evening closer “Fly Trapped in a Jar.” If this short tour was mostly an exercise of appeasement – that is, a greatest hits set and not a showcase for new material – I don’t think many would have minded the band passing over its most recent chapter in favor of “Never Ending Math Equation” or “I Came as a Rat” or “Interstate 8” or “3rd Planet” or… well, you know, pick your venom.
After all, this audience seemed far less interested in whatever could be considered Modest Mouse’s “hits”: The loudest applause to greet any one song on this night went to The Moon & Antarctica‘s schizo “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”.