Last Thursday saw the return of one of the most significant and unique voices in indie rock, as Modest Mouse kicked off a new tour with a two-night homestand at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom. It was a personal return for me as well, since I hadn’t seen the band perform at the Crystal since they did a four-night run back in 2004, right as “Float On” broke the band into the mainstream and out of college radio late-night playlists. Fans across the nation were eager to know if we would finally hear some of the new material from their oft-delayed follow-up to their 2009 EP No One’s First and You’re Next (or to go back even further, to their last album, 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank). To quickly answer the question, no we didn’t hear any new music per se, though a few songs were new to me (“Sugar Boats”, “Shit in Your Cut”, and “Lampshades on Fire” have not been released yet, though they had been a part of a few scattered live performances recently).
People have had varying experiences with Modest Mouse concerts, and I’ve read a few reviews where people were disappointed with their live set. After seeing them five times over 10 years at a variety of venues, I’m ready to say that it’s more likely than not that you’ll see a stellar show if you’re a true fan of the band. Things may have been different back in the early days where you weren’t certain what kind of state Isaac would show up in, but even the performance where he came off as a bit drunk had its charms, as I remember a particularly funny conversation that he had with an audience member on why they had trouble playing “Dramamine” (something along the lines of “it’s our first song from our first record, it’s hard to remember how to play it, it’s been a while!”). Every other performance has been outstanding, through all the different compositions of the band, with a set list that varies quite a bit from show-to-show. Chances are you’ll hear at least one deep cut from an early album at a show, which should be enough enticement for fans–it’s not a strict “greatest hits” playlist, in other words.
The night began with a slow start, as the crowd became restless when the band took its time before hitting the stage. It didn’t help that it was apparently many people’s first experience at a rock show, as you would hear random cheers when a roadie would come up to check an instrument or when a song from the system PA would end (here’s my quick reminder: the show hasn’t started until they turn off the house lights–just settle in until then). And initially, it seemed that the band was having to deal with first-show issues as instruments and mixing seemed to be an issue (though the latter is definitely a continual problem with shows at the Crystal). But by the time they got to “Ocean Breathes Salty” with the second song, all was forgiven as the crowd sang along with all the words.
We were treated to a career-spanning setlist, so fans from all eras of the band should have been pleased. Personal highlights included the rarity “Baby Blue Sedan” and the trio from the brilliant The Moon & Antarctica, especially a rambunctious version of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” that along with a raucous “Doin’ the Cockroach” formed a hell of a one-two punch to close the show. While the inclusion of “The World at Large” was to almost-be-expected (but not guaranteed, especially considering that “Float On” was absent from both nights’ setlists), it still was a moving experience, as a deeper inspection of lyrics over the years has revealed to me a beautifully melancholic perspective that I find has taken on increasing personal relevance with each passing day. (Though, unlike the performance in the link, Isaac played his usual guitar, possibly due to the fact that if they kept up the same instrumental setup over the years, they’d have to increase their keyboard budget significantly).
Over the course of the show, Isaac gradually loosened up and engaged with the crowd, possibly due to the fact that the venue had trapped in most of the heat on an unseasonably warm 90 degree day in May. We were treated to two great random stories, one referring to cat food and the other to his spectacularly short stint as an actor. For the first, Isaac told us how when walking past the venue earlier in the afternoon, he noticed a strange smell, later determining it to be cat food; he then remarked how that smell reminded him of visits to his grandmother’s house, but then he remembered that his grandmother had no cats (abrupt end of the story on purpose and warned about beforehand). The other was related directly to the chants coming from the back of the crowd* that he remarked “Chanting is hard to hear”, getting the crowd to chant that as a counter. He then told us about his work as an extra on The Pelican Brief, where he and his girlfriend were part of a group of protesters that were picketing whatever they wanted and shouting, just as B-Roll footage; the kicker was that it was such a pain in the ass that his girlfriend at the time didn’t bother to show up the next day, but he did and signed her in as well, meaning that he got both his $50 for the day and hers as well (as he said, it was clear that he needed the extra money more than she did).
Overall, the band sounded great, with the current lineup well-prepared to tackle the diverse instrumentation that is required of the Modest Mouse catalog. Hopefully over the course of the tour we’ll hear some more news about a potential new album, but meanwhile if you’re still on the fence to attend one of their shows, take my word for it and go.
*The chants were for a former band member, and when Isaac realized this, his answer was “Maybe…I don’t know…we’ll see.”