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Modest Mouse

(18 Jul 2010: The Valarium — Knoxville, TN)


So went one member of the sweat-soaked, huddled masses crammed near the stage at The Valarium in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The sold-out crowd showed no confusion about who they were there to see, taking the opportunity to chant the band name during every between-song pause during their soundcheck. 

Did I mention it was hot?

The few ceiling fans were no match for the extreme body heat or the 90-degree temperatures that left every member of the audience panting. For some, the heat seemed to have adverse effects—two hippie girls next to me danced in awkward euphoria, twisting to the ground, eyeing each other with infatuation, completely disregarding the comfort of their peers. Or maybe it was just the weed.

There was a lot of that. Smoke fumed in every direction, providing that quintessential body odor-related perfume. From a distance, a shirtless guy used hand gestures to ask me if I have rolling paper.  Or maybe he just wanted to take notes. 

I doubt it. 

Opener Morning Teleportation took the stage, apologized for being slightly tardy, and launched into an hour-long set of frenzied, Southern-fried psychedelia that actually managed to soothe the increasingly impatient and nearly fainting audience. The set was an eye-opener, as the band grooved and thrashed away, spicing their guitar/bass/keys/drums set up with trumpet, theremin, and talkbox while throwing out syllable-crammed vocal phrases like streams of party confetti. Songs like “Expanding Anyway” and “Snowfrog vs. Motorcobra” are prime examples for why Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock signed the band to his Glacial Pace label and is producing their upcoming album. 

Morning Teleportation were so good, they managed to upstage the band everyone came there to see.

It could have been due to technical issues. It could be traced back to poor performances by the sound engineers. Whatever the reason, the majority of Modest Mouse’s much-anticipated set sounded like a mess.

After one of the longest between-band waiting periods I’ve ever experienced at a concert, Brock and company took the stage to deafening screams only to launch into a performance of their classic “Dramamine” that was just as deafening. There was certainly not a lack of energy as the band really did bring their A-games to the performance, but it was difficult to pick out the nuances of the songs when what came out of the speakers sounded like it was drenched in the audible equivalent of mud.

The sound suffered most not in songs based on energy (“Dramamine”, “Alone Down There”, a still-excellent take on “Doin’ the Cockroach”) but on more subtle material like “Missed the Boat”, the layered, effects-drenched guitars on the album version were lost in pure volume and white noise. Same goes for “Blame it on the Tetons”, a fan favorite and a rare semi-ballad for the band. On 2004’s excellent Good News for People Who Love Bad News, the track was a centerpiece of calm in a sea of fury, featuring some of the band’s most tender and subtle playing. At The Valarium, the instruments no longer popped, and instead, bled together in a wash of impact-suffocating din.

Once again, these problems didn’t seem to come from the band themselves. The actual performances were striking, and as live performers go, it doesn’t get much better than maestro Isaac Brock, whose guitar playing, crappy sound or not, was nearly as devastating and magical as it is on album. His trademark technique of whammy bar-bent harmonics sent shivers despite the heat, and his stage presence was great, at one point tantalizing the crowd with his on-stage personal fan.

Most of the crowd was so involved in the idea that they were seeing Modest Mouse live that they didn’t seem to give much of a damn about the sound quality. They were in the palm of Brock’s hand the whole night. 

For me, I must admit being disappointed, as this was my first experience with the band in a live setting, and they have been one of my musical inspirations since the moment I heard them.

That hasn’t changed. 

Modest Mouse are still one of the world’s greatest bands—a band that manages to combine the beautiful, the ugly, the serene, and the noisy into something wholly original and unique. Next time they make it to The Valarium, maybe they can find a way to bring down the noise just a tad.

Missed the Boat
Wild Packs Of Family Dogs
We’ve Got Everything
Satin In A Coffin
Blame It on the Tetons
Doin’ The Cockroach
Here’s To Now
Autumn Beds
Alone Down There
Here It Comes
Tiny Cities Made of Ashes
Spitting Venom

Trailer Trash
Baby Blue Sedan
The Whale Song

Ryan Reed is an Adjunct English Professor, English Department Graduate Assistant, and freelance music critic/journalist with degrees in English and Journalism. In addition to serving as an Associate Music Editor/Music Writer with PopMatters, he contributes reviews, feature stories, and other work to Billboard, Paste, American Songwriter, Boston Phoenix, Relix, Blurt, Metro Pulse, Cleveland Scene, and a handful of others. If you want to contact him for any reason, send an e-mail to rreed6128[at]

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