Modest Mouse / All photos by Clayton Taylor
A lot has changed in the 17 years that have passed since Modest Mouse last played in our area. The band played Fayetteville three times in about 18 months around the time of their major label breakthrough from 2000, “The Moon & Antarctica.” I saw a flyer for one of those shows recently. They played at Clunk Music Hall, an old warehouse behind where Bucks of Asia is now located. Tickets were $8. The band !!! also played that night.
What’s different now? For starters, there was no such thing as The Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion, the large-format venue in Rogers that brought about 4,000 people on a Thursday night. Let’s face it – there was barely a Rogers. The town has nearly doubled in size since 2000, and there wouldn’t have been a venue or a market for their music in that city then.
Next at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion
What: Halsey with special guest Jessie Reyez
When: 8 p.m. July 20
Where: Arkansas Music Pavilion, Rogers
Cost: Remaining seats start at $30
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or visit arkansasmusicpavilion.com for information.
There wasn’t much in that part of Rogers at all. Certainly not the Cabela’s, which Modest Mouse lead singer Isaac Brock spent about five minutes praising/criticizing in a speech about Northwest Arkansas’ “suburbs.”
Then there’s the catalog to consider. All Modest Mouse has done in the intervening years has made themselves more popular, releasing a series of acclaimed indie rock records and recording their one “hit” song, the upbeat (for them) track “Float On.”
But one element endures, as sure as the sun rising in the east. Modest Mouse remains very, very weird. Not bad weird, or alarming weird. But weird nonetheless.
The band brought a small army of gadgetry and players for their return show. They lacked a lot stage aesthetics, compared to the more recent guests at the AMP, such as Janet Jackson and even Thirty Seconds to Mars. What they lacked in video boards and confetti, they compensated for with instruments. Brock played several guitars and a banjo. Bandmates contributed fiddle, trumpet and cabasa, among other toys. Several times there were two basses being played simultaneously during a song, and two keyboards at others. There were always three percussionists.
Their longstanding tradition of lyrical obtuseness was in full force. Modest Mouse at their best are complicated, and at other times confounding. I try to attempt to assemble concert setlists by writing down a key phrase or two in my notebook and Googling those phrases the next morning. There was more than one song on Thursday night where, during the entire six-minute presentation of it, I could not find a discernable word I could transfer to my notebook. That’s … less than ideal, even for someone who ascribes to the Joe Strummer school of rock music vocals. Luckily, someone who knows the band’s deep catalog better than I do was able to fill in the blanks in the set list you’ll find below.
But if we’re going to talk about aesthetics, it fits the part. Modest Mouse plays high-intensity music and does so at high volume. There weren’t many tricks to Thursday’s set, but if you watched the proceedings closely there were several reveals about how the noises one might hear on the album were recreated. There’s a level of authenticity present. Modest Mouse makes strange sounds, but they can back them up in concert.
I’ve long lamented that Northwest Arkansas is in need of a mid-sized venue. And I’ve long used Modest Mouse as my litmus test to prove the point. They are too big for George’s Majestic Lounge (capacity 700ish) and too small for the Arkansas Music Pavilion (capacity 10,000). Except … they were booked for the AMP. Thursday’s show was on the small size for an AMP crowd. But a half-full AMP is still among the larger draws for Modest Mouse on the current tour, which has focused mid-sized theaters and festivals.
Their opener, Mass Gothic, had some interesting elements but their relatively lo-fi arrangement paled significantly after Modest Mouse opened their toolboxes. Mass Gothic’s highlight might have come courtesy of the drummer, who in addition to being skilled, added an extra layer when he played without the benefit of sight for a time. He tucked a towel underneath his hat to help with the sweat, and it completely covered his face.
Even if Modest Mouse had some trouble with the unfamiliar suburbia of Northwest Arkansas, Brock seemed to enjoy himself, if that’s possible. He came out for a second encore. Who even does that? Not Modest Mouse, as far as I can tell, and it looks legitimate. Many – maybe even most – concerts have a perfunctory encore, to the point the songs are written on the setlist. I may find out later that was our case. But I couldn’t find a recent setlist where Modest Mouse came out for a second encore.
Maybe, just maybe, Modest Mouse liked their surroundings enough to come back again. And maybe it won’t be another 17 years before they do.
I can only imagine what they will look like then, and what Rogers will look like, too.