Modest Mouse at McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom, Portland, May 1, 2014
Isaac Brock is obviously at ease in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. So much so that he was comfortable enough letting the Crystal Ballroom crowd stew for a full half-hour past the scheduled start time before taking the stage with the rest of Modest Mouse. And comfortable enough to let between song breaks linger far longer than necessary, with enough time to tell a couple of rambling stories about his work as an extra in the film version of The Pelican Brief and something involving his cats and his grandmother.
Maybe, though, the ability to bullshit and drag one’s feet in front of a paying audience is one of the spoils of success. As well as being able to sell out a sweltering 1,500 capacity venue for two nights even though he’s released no new music since his band’s 2007 album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.
With Brock’s comfort and the luxury of having such a rabid fan base (the line to buy the poster for the show remained at least 20 people deep for the first hour after the doors opened), Modest Mouse could have done just about anything onstage without anyone batting an eye. A full set of new material, a run through the group’s earliest work, or a night of Ramones covers. No one would have complained.
Instead, the eight-piece band played it relatively safe. They jumped to “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “Dashboard” early in the set, and for the majority of their set, stuck to more material from their three major label releases. And the band comported themselves admirably, hewing as close as they could to the dynamics of the studio versions without appearing entirely robotic.
There was a noticeable stiffness to a lot of the set, though, particularly when the full eight-piece band was onstage — too often, it seemed as though all the added bodies onstage weren’t adding much to the music. That overstuffed quality only became more glaring during those moments when the band would whittle down to five people and rage through some early Modest Mouse material like the snarling renditions of “Breakthrough” (from 1996’s This Is A Long Drive for Someone With Nothing To Think About) and “Doin’ the Cockroach” (from The Lonesome Crowded West, released in ’97).
Possibly the biggest surprise of the evening was the lack of new material in the mix. Brock canceled his band’s 2013 European tour to finish writing and recording of what will purportedly be album #7. But the only fresh songs in the setlist were already familiar to anyone who keeps up with YouTube clips of the band, with the countrified kiss off “Heart of Mine” getting the biggest reaction from the crowd.
The night’s other big surprise? No “Float On.”