What happens when people who love bad news get it?
My buddy called me earlier that day, sick as a dog, with that dreaded tone people use when they’re ringing a friend to cancel plans. He'd been nursing “some cold I can’t get rid of, or something” for a few days. Though he was the one who asked me to attend the sold-out Modest Mouse show, he figured there was a good chance he wouldn’t be making it.
"Wrong answer,” I said in my best grandstanding good-buddy voice. This was not an option. This is fucking Modest Mouse at the fucking Bowery Ballroom, arguably one of the best clubs in New York City. An opportunity to see the band in such an intimate space doesn’t come around often. This was too important to miss.
Plus, it was an incredibly difficult ticket to land (even my editor couldn’t snag one!). Modest Mouse were playing three venues that week, with two shows in Midtown at the massive Nokia Theater, then two at the slightly smaller Webster Hall in the East Village, and then, finally, two at the much, much smaller Bowery Ballroom. All six shows sold out in a matter of minutes. The only reason my ailing buddy scored two tickets was his tenacious patience and savvy understanding of Internet sales.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve softened on Modest Mouse in the past few years. I’ve been troubled by the prevalent belief that the band's newfound commercial viability and radio-friendly status have dulled their chaotic spark, their rugged, angular sound and crass indifference to critics. After all, things like that happen when you’re accepted into a collective or society -- in this case, the new mainstream class of independent rockers. And so, in some ways, this show was a test. What happens when a band that’s made their name mining sharp melancholy suddenly has a reason to be happy? Does the fire cool down? Does the ceaseless burn give way to something friendly?
Perhaps that’s a loaded question. Whatever the answer, the point is, I wasn’t without hope: I really was ready to see the legendary band eliminate all doubt about their sincerity with a nasty onslaught of bitter, brazen rock. Slay the knaves who speak ill of our fearless band leader Isaac Brock’s angst-ridden legacy. And the room was ready as well. The Bowery was teeming with energy. Hell, even the restrooms, which have fruit flies perched on the walls above the urinals, reminded me of something Mouse’s singer/songwriter extraordinaire Brock would turn into poetry.
But, it wasn't meant to be.
I keep coming back to the “what didn’t work?” question. I don’t contest that even legendary bands have off nights. And remember, this was the fifth New York show in a row of six. That can be grueling for a band with so much to say. But, on the other hand, what do people who pay thirty-five bucks to see a show expect? What do they deserve? Perhaps that’s the more important question. There was no light show, no pyrotechnics or dancing machines -- just the music, which, let’s face it, is all we should expect. Of course, what we should expect and what we do expect aren't always the same thing.
Eight technicians decorated the tiny, elaborate stage for nearly thirty minutes before the band arrived. The stage itself disappeared under two sets of drums, dual keyboards, an accordion, a trumpet, a mini cello, a banjo, and guitars -- both the lead singer and Special New Guitarist (to be mentioned later) each had techs replacing this last instrument after nearly every song. The male-dominated audience was salivating.
But, onstage, the band was expressionless. And, as for audience interaction, singer Brock leveled only two comments: “Good evening,” when the night began, and “Thanks for coming.” If Brock wants to write about robots, cool. Sign me up. If he wants to act like a robot, okay, but why do it on stage? I spent the set thinking about what food I had in my refrigerator, the errands I needed to run the next day, and how alone everyone must have felt in such a crowded space, with nothing to relate to beyond an ostensibly great live band that was going through its set like it was a rehearsal. The new songs were too raw to judge -- in this respect it really was a warm-up for bigger gigs to come, when familiarity will engender greater enthusiasm. And so, it wasn’t the new material, or the "new" image that ruined the show, but rather the band itself. Their lackluster presentation was without inspiration or irony: it was mired in disconnection, the same dull ache engendered in the most affecting, but desperately unapproachable, part of the band's music.
It sucks to have to write that.
At times, the band showed signs of life -- let’s not forget that they are very talented -- but the moments were few and far between and usually rested in the restrained emotion of Johnny Marr. Wait. Is that right? Johnny Marr... from The Smiths... onstage with Modest Mouse? It turns out the legendary guitarist was asked to record some tracks with the ebullient band. That turned into recording with them on their long-awaited follow-up to Good News for People Who Love Bad News, which subsequently led to Marr joining the band on this tour to test the new material. There have even been subsequent press claims by Brock that Marr is now an official member of the band.
I loves the sound of that, but couldn’t believe the news until I saw it with my own eyes. It's truly bizarre to see an '80s Brit-rock superstar sharing the stage with the kings of '90s American angst. Is this like Eddie Van Halen joining Oasis? Or Nikki Sixx with the Arctic Monkeys? Or Aerosmith’s Joe Perry attached to Blur (well, maybe not that extreme). I was there to see Modest Mouse, but more than half the people in attendance were fixated on Marr, simply awed by his presence. As odd a pairing as that may be, I liked the experimentation. Marr did nothing to hinder Modest Mouse’s sonic borders. In fact, he got me bracing for even more wild oscillation.
I leave this article with a heavy hand, given that I’ve appreciated Modest Mouse’s music since day one. But on this particular night, the stars did not come into alignment. It brings to mind the lyrics from one of my favorite Mouse songs, “Baby Blue Sedan,” which, oddly, mirrors the sentiment of my evening, reminding us that the higher you push expectation, the further it has to fall:
And it's hard to be a human being
And it's harder as anything else
And I'm lonesome when you're around
And I'm never lonesome when I'm by myself
Sorry Isaac; turns out I miss you when you're around.