Modest Mouse at the Orpheum Theater, 7/14/10

Modest Mouse
July 14, 2010
The Orpheum Theater

Although Modest Mouse front man and sole constant Isaac Brock just turned 35 years old, he already feels like a relic from another musical era in terms of his career arc. He's one of the last bon a fide rock stars to travel what was once consider the only path to success; years of slugging it out to gradually increasing acclaim on the indie circuit, followed by signing with a major label and ultimately making a glossy platinum selling album (that would be 2004's breakthrough Good News for People Who Love Bad News).

What's arguably most impressive about MM's slow climb to stardom is that Brock's remained an irascible eccentric throughout. While naysayers are prone to dumping on the band's later material because it doesn't hew to the lo-fi by necessity sound of the band's early work, only a true hipster curmudgeon could label Modest Mouse sell-outs (it's not like the boozy brass-buoyed cacophony of "Perpetual Motion Machine" is exactly screaming out to be played on Top 40 radio).

Even as they've ascended to headlining theaters Brock's penchant for switching up his tuneful lisp with the occasional mad bark has remained intact, as has his band's knack for spiraling guitar epics more than willing to forgo conventional pop structures when the occasion calls for it. Modest Mouse rolled into town in an odd limbo status at present to be touring, with no new material under their belts beyond last year's 2009 EP, which was really a collection of outtakes recorded years earlier. The latest output from Brock has actually come courtesy of his creaky-folk side project Ugly Cassanova, contributing a handful of rustic acoustic sketches and intriguing-but-kind-of-half-baked instrumental sketches to the soundtrack of the documentary film 180 Degrees South, released earlier this month. With the star power of ex-Smiths guitarist and Brock's six-string sparring partner Johnny Marr long departed back to England years prior, and Brock himself acknowledging in an interview with Pitchfork earlier this month that the band had yet to buckle down and focus in on new material, it was truly anyone's guess what was in store for the capacity crowd.

Hitting the stage shortly before 9 p.m., the currently seven-piece band was in fine fettle throughout, staying in the zone for much of the 70-minute main set. The luxury of getting to tour with a band this large rendered some members largely superfluous. Dual drummers Joe Plummer and Jeremiah Green played virtually the exact same parts 85% of the time, and a largely inaudible backing vocalist's primary duties appeared to be smoking a joint on stage and nodding his head to the music (to be fair he did supply some tasty trumpet on about four songs). The core members active on stage, however, gave it their all. New guitarist Jim Fairchild more than made up for Marr's absence, supplying steady rhythmic grounding for Brock's skyward looking solos and unleashing an eerie falsetto that stole the spotlight on "We've Got Everything." Multi-instrumentalists Tom Peloso and Eric Judy also shined while shifting between an array of atypical rock noisemakers (accordion, a bowed upright bass) that often provided the perfect complementary coloring.

Modest Mouse at the Orpheum Theater, 7/14/10

In the end, however, no matter how many dudes he rounds up on stage with him, Modest Mouse lives or dies by what Brock brings to the table each night. While not quite the kinetic performer of yesteryear, Brock proved himself a mammoth stage presence despite his diminutive stature.

That being said, some of the hard rocking numbers from the group's distant past felt mailed in, "Dramamine" came off like lugubrious and meandering bore, a fact the stage light manager seemingly tried to make up for by going into "let's see if I can trigger a seizure in here" overdrive. The Mouse was most mighty this evening when shifting into their self-proclaimed "Prairie Home Companion" mode with nearly all of the night's highlights coming when Brock strapped on an acoustic guitar or banjo - the back to back combination of little heard 2001 b-side "Here it Comes" into "Blame it on the Tetons" was particularly riveting. At this stage in their evolution Modest Mouse are arguably more convincing - and certainly more interesting - as a rhythmically quirky and ever-prickly alt. country band than angst-ridden rockers, which is fine by me.

Critic's bias: The rare Modest Mouse fan who thinks last year's EP, No One's First and Your Next, stands up there with their best work.
The crowd: Young ,verging on fetal.
Overheard in the crowd: "Can I see your tickets?" - Sixty something security card to the gaggle of early twenties hard partiers standing in the aisle during the first third of the show.
Random notebook dump: The sexy guitar harmonics at the close of "Custom Concern" had me wondering why the band wasn't busting out Thin Lizzy style duel solos all night long - they certainly had enough dudes and guitars up there.
For more photos: See our complete slideshow by Alex Uncapher.

Set list:
Paper Thin Walls
We've Got Everything
Wild Pack of Family Dogs
Autumn Beds
Satin in a Coffin
Shit Luck
Here it Comes
Blame it on the Tetons
Parting of the Sensory
The View
Here's to Now (new Ugly Casanova tune)
Black Cadillacs
Spitting Venom

Encore Break

Alone Down There
Float On
Custom Concern
The Good Times Are Killing Me

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