Trying to catch Modest Mouse live can sometimes seem like a cat-and-mouse chase, and not just because of the band’s Virginia Woolf-referencing name. Even though new album Strangers To Ourselves is its first in eight years, Modest Mouse tours frequently, just with an erratic schedule. Rather than playing the festival circuit, they often book swaths of shows in clusters of states. You could live in a big media city like Chicago, for example, and go years without seeing the band—even as they stop in Kansas multiple times. You never know.
Even when you do catch them, a question remains: what version of the band you’ll get. Horror stories abound of frontman Isaac Brock showing up with two black eyes, or unable to remember his own lyrics, or with a burned-out voice. And one glance at setlist.fm makes it clear that Modest Mouse rarely, if ever, plays the same setlist twice. A ticket to a Modest Mouse show is both elusive and unpredictable, like a magic fortune cookie that could either bring you good luck or trap you in a horrifying Freaky Friday body switch.
Fortunately, the band’s show at Webster Hall Wednesday night (the first of a two-night booking, some proceeds of which are going to domestic violence charity Safe Horizon) featured them in excellent form. Brock’s voice sounded clear, and the acoustics were balanced—not always an easy task with a band whose songs occasionally require three guitarists, two drummers, and a violinist.
More importantly, the setlist was representative of Modest Mouse’s deep discography. With almost a dozen releases over two decades, each variously beloved by different types of fans, it’s obviously impossible for Modest Mouse to please everyone with a single set. Several audience members left audibly bummed about the exclusion of “The World at Large” and “Broke;” others probably missed “Trailer Trash” and “Ocean Breathes Salty.” Even so, nearly every album contributed to the show—even Brock’s one-off Ugly Casanova project, though obviously the focus was on Strangers To Ourselves.
The band kicked things off with the new album’s last track, “Of Course We Know,” a catchy slow burn whose crescendo fed right into the screaming “Black Cadillacs,” a highlight from the same album that gave us “Float On.” This opening salvo continued with the quintessential Modest Mouse song “3rd Planet,” a rumination on the universe amplified to arena volume by scores of fans shouting along to every word. The unpredictability of a Modest Mouse concert is worth it for the chance of seeing a song like that performed live.
There was plenty of screaming throughout the show, as anyone familiar with Brock’s eccentric brand of cult adoration would expect. As great as a front-row spot can be, it feels better in a way to spend a Modest Mouse show in the back, with the screaming drunks. This has always been a band meant for the stoner who mostly spews nonsense—but occasionally achieves greater insight than anyone.
At its best, Modest Mouse’s music pulls from Brock’s dark id without getting lost in it. Perhaps no song is no more representative of that balancing act than “King Rat,” a highlight from the 2009 B-side collection No One’s First and You’re Next that starts as dark vaudevillian mischief before devolving into total chaos. It was surprising to hear it played live, and less shocking to hear the band cut it off right at that crucial turning point. Some songs are too tough to pull off in real time; it’s the same reason Kendrick Lamar never raps all of “Rigamortis” at concerts. This abridged “King Rat” was followed by with “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box,” easily the most energetic cut from Strangers To Ourselves, and a safer dose of controlled chaos.
Beloved a cult singer as he may be, Brock is no Thom Yorke, who spent many years excluding “Creep” from Radiohead sets. Modest Mouse did, in fact, play “Float On” on Wednesday. There’s a certain type of Modest Mouse fan who disowns this song; its optimism seems unearned compared to darkly introspective tracks like “Trailer Trash” and “3rd Planet.” Seeing Modest Mouse live, then, is a chance for these fans to confront the reality of “Float On,” and the fact that it is not an unabashed pop sellout so much as a really good version of a Modest Mouse song.
When the band left the stage after “Bury Me With It,” a bit of tension arose as to whether they would come back. After all, Modest Mouse fans are the type of crowd who don’t buy into the silly “encore” process at modern concerts—but Brock seems like the type of singer who might forgo an encore if he didn’t hear enough applause. All that worry for nothing; the band came back for a six-song encore that finished with “The Good Times Are Killing Me,” and stage lights twinkled along with the guitars.
Check out the entire setlist here:
Of Course We Know
Lampshades On Fire
Doin’ the Cockroach
Dramamine / Life Like Weeds
The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box
Fire It Up
Shit In Your Cut
Satin in a Coffin
Here’s to Now (Ugly Casanova)
The Best Room
Bury Me With It
This Devil’s Workday
A Different City
The Good Times Are Killing Me