For some mysterious reason, Modest Mouse’s frenzied, volcanically verbose lead singer Isaac Brock felt the need for audience sympathy midway through his Norman, OK, set: he admitted that he had come down with a cold. Yes, middle America, indie-rock stars do, on occasion, get colds—if only on occasion. Yes, faithful friends, Isaac Brock is human, however much he strives to achieve the persona of a deft, but thoroughly imbibed, alien.
Brock’s honest concession was rather awkward indeed, but, then, awkwardness virtually defines the Washington-bred band. The irony must be that Brock’s cold did little to hinder or emasculate the band’s performance; rather, his illness encouraged both him and his mates to put on an uncompromising, workman-like show. Under pressure, Modest Mouse evidenced an artistic technique that was equally cohesive, maniacal, and evocative.
This form of honest, well-fashioned band unity does not come easy during any live performance, but the combination of Brock’s cold with the unique setting—Norman is a small, mid-western college town—set the stage for a genuinely matchless gig. When Brock hit the stage, he immediately slurred his Elliott Smith-like abomination for the setting and its implied elevation of macho athleticism, facetiously saying it was “rad” to perform within a “sports arena.” Later, just prior to the encore, he said it was pleasant to hang out in the locker room. Nice showers.
Brock’s pejorative jocularity aside, this particular sports arena was filled with a dedicated, if modest, group of mostly collegiate Modest Mouse fans. The band had to feel their unique sense of devotion; several fans loudly requested songs, rare and popular alike. (To put the dynamic in context, another major concert was going on in nearby Oklahoma City in celebration of Oklahoma’s state centennial. It takes dedication to skip out on natives like Toby Keith and the Flaming Lips.)
The band’s set was made up primarily of songs from its last two albums: Good News for People Who Love Bad News and the recent We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. In fact, the band dropped about half of the cuts from We Were Dead, including “Education”, “Little Motel”, We’ve Got Everything”, “Fire It Up”, and “Parting of the Sensory” (the last of which was reserved for the encore).
“Fire It Up”, one of the meatier cuts from We Were Dead, was the fifth song of the set, and one of its most memorable. The rather mellifluous lyric “Oh, we ate all of the oranges off the navels of our lovers” contrasted well with the firm, demanding nature of the chorus, which Brock voiced with his whole body. As to poetic appeal, an inspired standout performance of “Little Motel” showed that Brock and company can be concomitantly sensitive and manic. Indeed, the ballad-like “Little Motel” might have been the best performed song of the evening: it was a pristine moment during which sincerity and skill coalesced. This variety of painful honesty also occurred during “Education” as Brock grasped his guitar and held it near his chest, voicing the lyric “Hardly education / all them books I didn’t read / they just sat there on my shelf lookin’ much smarter than me.” The set also featured well-received anthems like the hyper-sarcastic “We’ve Got Everything” and the moody, rebellious “Parting of the Sensory”.
The band’s relatively recent addition of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr turned out to be a worthwhile move. Much the way he propped up Morrissey, Marr contributed to the band’s sound without leading it too far astray, his controlled guitar playing complimenting Brock’s knee-jerk style. He stood with his head turned toward Brock for most of the show—proof that he was following the singer’s lead.
Dressed in a long-sleeve plain shirt, Brock worked himself into a visible sweat and brought a unique, corporeal presence to the performance. At one point, he was so engaged and animated that he hit his microphone stand by accident. During another song, he humbled himself by jumping down from the stage to join enthused fans in the audience (and he has a cold? Hope no one caught it).
For all the enthusiasm, there was one palpable negative. Marr sarcastically asked the crowd members if they wanted to hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—that little unknown jingle that brought fame and popularity to Nirvana in the early ’90s. He posed this as a preface to “Float On”, the contagious song that popularized (and to some observers sold-out) Modest Mouse in 2004. The moment was painfully self-aware.
Modest Mouse played “Float On”, but without any sense of passion. It was as if the band felt obliged to play it only because it was a major hit. Brock’s mad-eyed, manic high-energy simply ceased. He held his head down, seeming to loathe the band’s obligation to play a song that was featured on, of all things, American Idol. This came in stark contrast to the band’s other songs, particularly “Satin in a Coffin”, another song from Good News that saw the band electrified, Brock thrilled to (dark-)humorously emote: “God, I sure hope you are dead.” Stadium status or no, Modest Mouse and their fans are clearly more at home in the band’s trademark frenzy of gloom.