Modest Mouse with Japanese Motors and Mimicking Birds
Disco Rodeo, Raleigh
Wednesday, March 11
Wednesday night at Disco Rodeo, I watched two young women celebrate the songs of Modest Mouse in very different but no-less-surprising ways: The first stood to my left, short and energetic, sort of a bubble happily bursting every time the band launched into any of the 21 songs it played.
Wearing one of the classic Modest Mouse T-shirts—dark cotton, sleeves rolled up, that iconic buffalo painted across the midsection—she sang every word, moving in time with the double drums of Jeremiah Green and Joe Plummer. For lack of a better term, she booty-danced, too, even to a slow song called “Wild Pack of Family Dogs.” “My mother’s cryin’ blood dust now,” sang she and frontman Isaac Brock, pouring sweat and spreading spit. “My daddy quit his job today/ I guess he was fired but that’s OK.” Well, if you feel like dancing…
The second sat to my right atop a wooden railing that surrounds the massive central dance floor of Disco Rodeo, which serves as a Latino dance club come the weekend. By night’s end, the big tin-walled room felt like a smoker’s sauna, the air obfuscated by a thick combination of smoke and sweat. (Would “swoke” or “smeat” be the better portmanteau for this phenomenon?) Throughout the set, though, she lashed back at the heat, pumping her fist forward and into the air like an air drummer playing the world’s biggest imaginary gong. She couldn’t find the rhythm and didn’t know many words aside from the big tunes (“Dashboard,” “Float On,” “The View”), but she smiled nonetheless. It seemed as if she was having the time of her life with a band she hadn’t memorized but whose energy she relished.
Such contrast between and intersection of devotees and casual fans epitomizes the state of Modest Mouse in 2009, or at least it did Wednesday night. On the strength of three major label LPs, sporadic and sometimes strong radio play, a benchmark indie back-catalog and decades of steady ascent from dives to clubs to auditoriums to—last summer with R.E.M.—amphitheaters, Modest Mouse now commands a big, variable fan base. To wit, a line shaped by college co-eds and dotted by 9-to-5ers stretched from Disco Rodeo’s glass doors to Industrial Drive for much of the underwhelming opening sets by California’s Japanese Motors and Portland’s Mimicking Birds.
But once Modest Mouse took the stage, the crowd came along happily for two hours, enduring the temperature and perspiration for a sprinted marathon that moved from the band’s early tunes (“Styrofoam Boots,” from 1997’s Lonesome Crowded West) to the unreleased “Satellite Skin.” At times, the audience’s vocal participation was overwhelming. Occasionally, though, you had to look hard to find someone who knew the words.
It seems that those who knew those tunes actually sat this one out—that is, we kids who first picked up on the band in the ’90s but gave up on them (not coincidentally) after “Float On” hit “Hey Ya!” super-status. It’s a shame, too, because last night’s six-piece Modest Mouse was—much to my surprise—the tightest, fullest and most enjoyable incarnation of the band I’ve seen live. They were energetic and connected, rehearsed but visceral.
In fact, post-Johnny Marr, if Modest Mouse has an on-stage problem, it’s that Brock’s current band is too good to peel away from the song, to step into the shadows when the tune should stand front and center: Eric Judy’s a great bass player, supplying thick, twisting lines with an agile snap-and-pop. But slapping at the guitars alongside two drummers, the rhythm section often became too big, giving the softer songs very little chance to, well, be soft. That ocean swallowed the shimmering little riff of “Dashboard” (the single’s best feature, for my money), and Brock would have done just as well to forgo the banjo introduction of “Satin in a Coffin,” as it soon enough gave way to the usual guitar distortion, anyway. The expected dynamics blurred into flatlines. Had Brock not taken time to talk to the audience and ensure everyone was hydrated, the whole thing might have become a monolithic browbeater.
But Brock did take the time to check on his audience, and it served the band’s heavy hands well. In fact, one of the night’s several charms was Brock’s light-hearted empathy for his fans. Rolling around the country on a bus, with a major-label imprint to his name, Brock is sort of a big deal leading a massive production these days. Still, he shamelessly switched into silly red swimming trunks midway through the set. The band even veered off setlist once, turning the bright stage lights off to play two slower tunes (“Blame it on the Tetons,” “Wild Pack of Family Dogs”) and relax. “I’m not standing next to a bunch of 98-degree mammals,” he said by way of apology as his crew tossed dozens of water bottles into the crowd.
After a few more songs, a request from the beleaguered first few rows caught his ear. Someone wanted to hear “Styrofoam Boots,” one of the best tunes Brock’s ever written but one that generally gets left out of sets. “Fuck it,” he said, admitting he’d forgotten it but felt bad for the sweaty kids.
He ripped right into it. He nailed it. The woman to my left sang along. The woman to my right pumped her fist.