Whenever championed indie rock outfit Modest Mouse releases a new record and heads out on the road, the same question inevitably comes up in one form or another: “How’s Isaac Brock doing?”
The witty, volatile, and presumably intoxicated frontman has been no stranger to acting as he damn well pleases over the course of Mouse’s twenty-plus-year career. He’s the same man who pointedly broke down for a jerk audience member the specific reasons as to why he would never play “Free Bird.” (End reason: “Life is too fucking short to play or hear ‘Free Bird.’ ”)
But on March 18 at Webster Hall, at the first of two sold-out shows at the venue, Brock seemed unmistakably driven and punchy in his playing, stomping his way through his wary, cathartic music with a palpable sense of purpose.
Strangers to Ourselves, Modest Mouse’s sixth full-length, dropped eight years (nearly to the day) after the release of their last record. They certainly haven’t been immune to lengthy album productions over the years (Brock’s personal record label is called Glacial Pace Recordings, after all), but it seems like a real minute since 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, between the surprise joining and swift exit of ex-Smith Johnny Marr, the departure of founding member/bassist Eric Judy (more on that below) and those fantastical new-album rumors of guest appearances from Krist Novoselic and Big Boi that ultimately fell to the wayside.
But as Brock and Co. took the stage last night (to the taped sounds of heavy thunderstorms, no less), it became clear that all that time between records has had no ill effects on the group as a live machine. Modest Mouse is still a much larger affair in 2015 — a little more Polyphonic Spree than the group’s scrappy early days — but it all feels justified, as the fuller stage adds a more grandiose aspect to Brock’s frantic playing and barking, like a chamber orchestra complementing the singer’s boozy opera.
The band was tack-sharp over the course of their career-spanning set, with throwbacks such as “3rd Planet” and “Doin’ the Cockroach” particularly electrifying the packed room. New cuts like “Lampshades on Fire” and “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” also transferred seamlessly to the stage, already sounding like decade-old favorites in the band’s catalog. Ending their encore with Good News for People Who Love Bad News closer “The Good Times Are Killing Me” also guaranteed a sweaty sing-along before the crowd headed out into the frigid midnight air.
It’s worth noting that Mouse’s set had a glaring missing piece, as original member and bassist Judy left the group in 2012 for the unforeseeable future. Judy is and was an undeniable part of Mouse’s original trio and is truly Brock’s right-hand man both onstage and in the studio. And while the plethora of touring members who bring Mouse’s increasingly rich studio productions to life do a fine job — with extra credit due to Lisa Molinaro, switching instruments nearly every song — Judy’s playing has always added a certain kind of traction that appeared missing among the tight band of musicians Wednesday night.
Glacial Pace labelmates and fellow Northwesterners Mimicking Birds opened up the evening, sharing the same attributes of Modest Mouse’s softer side — airy guitars and lisped whisperings — which provided a fitting antipasto to Mouse’s bombarding set.
So how is Isaac Brock doing in 2015? If last night was any indication, he’s still the same mystifying curmudgeon he’s always been, but he and his bandmates seem freshly resolute in addressing the world’s malevolence one raucous number at a time. Try doing that with “Free Bird.”
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