TVD Live: Modest Mouse at Echostage, 9/6

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | Nineties bands, like the bands of the decades that preceded them, are learning that it’s better to retain the name of the beloved old outfit even if everything changes rather than scrapping it all and going out as, say, the Isaac Brock Experience.

Which Modest Mouse pretty much has been all along, save for the drumming of Jeremiah Green. Would D.C.’s huge Echostage have sold out so quickly Sunday night without the promise of beloved old tunes under the Modest Mouse moniker? Probably not.

And even with practically all new personnel from when they first started back in Washington state, it’s remarkable how similar and true to form the band has been, even though they’re bigger now and more professional.

The wildly expanded current version has eight people on stage but expanded at one point up to nine. And while they were dutiful in presenting a lot of material from this year’s release, Strangers to Ourselves—eight selections in all—they were also very good in going back and picking some of the most obscure and rare old tracks to reward longtime fans who were out in abundance this Labor Day weekend.

That meant “Dramamine” to kick off the five song encore; and the lengthy Japanese-only release “Night on the Sun” toward the end of the main set. “Dramamine” was one of two songs from the nearly 20-year-old This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (the other was the mid-set “Custom Concern”), and there were selections from every Modest Mouse album since.

Still, you’d think a two-hour, 23-song show would have room for what was by far its biggest hit “Float On.” But it had apparently floated right off the set list. Nor was there room for one of their latest singles, “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box.” Clearly, this is a band that embraces obscurity, which is logical judging from Brock’s consistently offbeat themes and approaches.

The combination of the new with the very old didn’t sound jarring at all, because the current band pretty much keeps in line with the Modest Mouse of yore—the jagged, angular approach, the military beat, and the squawkiness of Brock’s vocals, which are closer to rhythmic chants than actual singing (the range is limited enough to require an occasional yelp when going upstairs). Still, he continues to pack a lot of weirdness in the lyrics to make it seem like fresh, skewed ways of looking at the world.

In its first tour in nearly a decade, the band is way beyond any charmingly scruffy, low fi presentation of itself that marked early shows. Indeed, the pinpoint lights and smoke made for quite a big time professional rock show. So bright and obscuring was the lighting effects that you didn’t quite see the whole band until between songs when flat stage lighting gave a glimpse of the big group.

For a band with two full-time drummers (in the style of the Allman Brothers, The Melvins, and the Feelies) plus a third percussionist, the rhythms don’t get very complex. In fact you could say they all weren’t exactly needed. The guitarists are needed, though, and with Brock’s lines echoed by Jim Fairchild, they can get into some interesting interplay. I kept thinking though what it would have sounded like if Johnny Marr had stayed with the band for more than an album.

Lisa Molinaro has been a nice addition on fiddle, but was hardly heard on that instrument, with one of the exceptions being when Brock opened the show on banjo for “King Rat.” Mostly she added keyboards, though she may have been more useful in high harmonies (or high singing in general).

For all his practiced strangeness, Brock is an affable lead man, wearing a brightly patched jacket that made way for an orange T-shirt (and a completely different shirt for the encore). Half of what he said to the audience was offhand non sequiturs and hard to figure. At one point he drank from a flask; at another he was reacting to non sequiturs yelled by the crowd, saying “Keep it short and pointless.” Mostly, he seemed gratified the large group of fans had stayed with him all along his circuitous path.

The long evening began three and a half hours earlier with a pretty decent set from the Philadelphia band Hop Along. It was a pretty good fit with the headliner, what with their own angular approach to songs. But theirs is based on Frances Quinlan’s arresting voice, which slides from melodic to a distinctive screech as the songs dictate. It was a demonstration of how much more a seemingly inscrutable song can communicate with a flexible enough voice.

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