Modest Mouse // Photo By Hollister Dixon
By Hollister Dixon
One of the most enjoyable things about Modest Mouse as a live entity is that they know they have two audiences: the ones who want to hear the hits (“Float On” and “Dashboard” still get people riled up, after all), and the ones that want to hear deep cuts. The band are in their 21st year with 11 releases under their belt (6 albums and assorted other EPs and compilations), meaning the well that they get to pull from is pretty deep. I started seeing the band perform much later than I probably should have (It took a decade to get around to it), but I’ve since attempted to make up for it by seeing them wherever possible, be it at a festival or at a tiny benefit show in a hole-in-the-wall bar. This weekend, I decided to go whole-hog and see the band’s two-night stint at the Crystal Ballroom, as part of 94.7 KNRK’s “December to Remember” run of shows.
Before we get into those two shows, let’s talk about openers. Saturday night’s opener was a no-brainer, almost to the point of being safe. Mimicking Birds, longtime members of Isaac Brock’s Glacial Pace Recordings, played this same stage with Modest Mouse back in ’09 for MusicFest Northwest’s Glacial Pace showcase. In truth, though, the nature of the show meant that Mimicking Birds was almost a little too sonically safe; Nate Lacy’s group trafficks in patient and twinkling folk-rock, the kind designed for small parties and long car rides, rather than as a complement to a band as raucous as Modest Mouse. and though their sound works quite nicely in the Crystal Ballroom, I couldn’t help but find myself yearning for a much, much smaller venue, or at very least with the band as a headliner. Despite their flirtations with grandeur, the crowd seemed to get a little restless around the halfway point, though the band’s performance didn’t suffer in the very least.
The mild restlessness of the crowd during that set was nothing to the following night. So, Mattress. I take a lot of pleasure in seeing a crowd react to a completely mismatched opener – seeing Big Freedia open for The Postal Service in 2013 was worth the price of admission – but there was something funny in the air Sunday night. Rex Marshall’s music is just insane enough to be absolutely brilliant, but from the moment he wandered onstage bedecked in a gold suit, it was clear that the crowd just was not having it. Were Mattress an actual band the crowd might have reacted differently, but as Marshall swayed and bounced on the mic like the half-cousin of Nick Cave and Richard Cheese, the crowd began to lose their patience, fast. It has been a long time since I heard a crowd so loud during an opener, and it felt like such a waste. Somehow, I can’t get over the image of Isaac Brock sitting backstage, laughing to himself, completely happy in the decision he made.
Mattress // Photo By Hollister Dixon
But, his performance was undoubtedly wonderful. That Nick Cave/Richard Cheese thing is built upon stratified layers of shifty Las Vegas casino crooners and gurgling, queasy synthesizers, and he knows how to work it. There’s an uneasiness to Mattress, where you almost wonder if Marshall, somewhere in his mind, believes himself to be performing these songs at the MGM Grand with an orchestra rather than in whatever room he’s in, accompanied by a small synth array and a silver-painted table. But, just like those Vegas crooners, that’s part of the act. “I never in my life thought I’d sell out the Crystal Ballroom,” Marshall said midway through, poking the bear that was the unhappy crowd. Just like the aforementioned Mimicking Birds, I was left wanting a smaller show from him, though I’d happily take many more sets just like this one, full of squelching bass and confused twentysomethings.
I’ll get the most unfortunate thing about Modest Mouse‘s weekend at the Crystal out of the way first: it felt, by the end of it, that I’d just watched to very unequal halves squished together. Taken as a whole, the band ran the gambit: 36 different songs from each record, with the only three songs played both nights (“Lampshades on Fire” and “Of Course We Know” from this year’s Strangers to Ourselves, as well as fan favorite “Dashboard” from We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank). Both nights, Isaac Brock was in fine form, rambling at full force in between songs and seeming genuinely happy to still be playing these songs. However, the first night was the weaker of the two, with the energy of the show coming to a grinding halt between what seemed like every single song – or at least, that’s how it felt – while Brock rambled about the heat, cats, the length of their encore break (roughly 8 minutes both nights). And, while that set got an appearance by the unretired ol’ chestnut “Float On” (which, to its credit, sounded hungrier and more ferocious than it has any right to be) and gems like “Grey Ice Water“, “Shit Luck“, and “Night on the Sun“, the set was a lot like their set at MusicFest Northwest earlier this year: standard in a lot of ways.
Perhaps the biggest issue was that the band seemed to have organized the two nights as though it was one giant show. Ending the first night with the loud, bizarro Lonesome Crowded West cut “Shit Luck” felt like foreshadowing for the deep-cut-heavy, Isaac-Brock-rant-light second show – a show which, if I’m being honest, is the best Modest Mouse show I’ve seen yet. To pick a highlight for this one almost feels impossible: was it the long-dormant gem “Bankrupt on Selling“? (Spoiler: yes, it was, and it reduced me to tears) Was it belting out “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset” arm-in-arm with a stranger next to me? Was it finally getting to see Good News banger “Bury Me With It“? (Also probably this one, really) Was it the fact that they played standard show-closer “The Good Times Are Killing Me” and then two more songs, including “Never Ending Math Equation“? Truly, the only actual dud of the evening was Strangers cut “Pistol“, a song that is truly worse than even the half-baked Dial-A-Songs from rarities collection Sad Sappy Sucker. That can be forgiven, though.
All of this said, the setlists and the amount of rambling was the only place where the sets differed. 20+ years is a long time for a band to maintain momentum, and the gap between We Were Dead and Strangers likely served to keep the band feeling fresh. At this point, Brock and drummer Jeremiah Green are the only remaining founding members of the band, but the strengths of a band’s hired guns (for lack of a better term) is dependent on the strengths of those there from the beginning. It’s a testament to the power of the band as a live act that even the stale “Float On” could be made to sound as ferocious as “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes“, but even after a half-dozen shows in four years, I’m still consistently floored by the live arm of Modest Mouse. They are, at once, one of the most tight, and most unwound, live acts I’ve ever seen. The band is past the days of Brock slicing his arm open or fighting fans or ranting about “Freebird” (okay, maybe they’re still there, but still!), and now what remains is a group of weirdos led by a man who is equal parts affable and curmudgeonly.
While walking out of the Ballroom sunday night, I wondered to myself if I ever really needed to see Modest Mouse again after that two-day stint. And, despite the oversaturation I’ve experienced in the last week while prepping for the shows – an oversaturation I haven’t felt since I was 13 in rural Washington, imagining Isaac Brock feeling like I did just two towns over – I can say, without hesitation, absolutely. Their strengths are great enough that I’ll happily turn out any chance I get, and even if a show feels like a dud, it’s still likely to be a satisfying performance.