Modest Mouse | 07.01.08

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Photo: Joanna Kleine 

The sextet played their hearts out, but the performance was hindered by a distractingly poor sound job. Feedback haunted the night like an unwelcome guest, sporadically deafening the audience at inopportune moments.

 

The Pageant, St. Louis

Last week, The Pageant hosted indie-rock darlings Modest Mouse, now mid-way through their summer tour in support of their fifth studio release We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Epic). With a legendary guitarist joining the ranks, and the group's embrace of the studio now vice-tight, I was excited to see how far these Washington natives have come since their early days. As I stepped through the poster-plastered entrance, I wondered if their wit would be as sharp and their hooks as deceivingly dense as their recent history would suggest.

Sporting a wide-brimmed straw hat, lead singer Isaac Brock casually strutted onto the stage, dragging a plastic pot plant behind him for comedic effect. Although never directly referenced by the band, the plant's strategic movements between songs seemed strangely appropriate. Brock's exaggerated hat and the meandering tuffs of plastic leaves gave the ambiance a twinge of Dr. Seuss. Like starting a speech with a joke, it set an exuberant mood, and satiated some curiosity I had about the band's charisma. Indeed, the boys themselves seemed to be in high spirits, as quiet smiles drifted on their faces with an air of self-assurance. Confidence oozed from Brock, as he howled their energetic opening song "Dance Hall."

The sextet played their hearts out, but the performance was hindered by a distractingly poor sound job. Feedback haunted the night like an unwelcome guest, sporadically deafening the audience at inopportune moments. For most of the night, all I could hear were low drums (the kick, and toms) and the electric guitars, and although brilliantly played, when there are six musicians onstage, that's not exactly enough. As I strained to hear Brock's vocals, buried deep under the frothing wall of sound, I wondered how something wasn't being done to fix the problem.

The miserable sound quality would make sense in somehole-in-the-wall with a PA comprised of an assortment of punctured speakers, manned by some drugged up half-wit, but not at St. Louis' favorite concert club. I could complain all day, but to dwell on this would be a disservice to the band's amazing performance, so let it be said that I've never, at any major venue, heard worse sound throughout an entire show.

Although the sound system was lacking, the group's conviction never wavered. Modest Mouse's recent migration to a more produced sound (typified by their latest recording) vanished live. There was a purposely unpolished rawness, reminiscent of their lo-fi past, surrounding their performance. Songs like "Dance Hall" fit in perfectly with this balls-to-the-wall mentality, whereas some more recent songs were given a fresh attitude. During the climax of "Satin in a Coffin," Brock fell to his knees screaming into the bridge of his guitar, making the strings vibrate with his voice. This moment, like much of their performance, was unusual and amazing.

Recent addition Johnny Marr (formerly of The Smiths) made it look easy, playing throughout the entire night with effortless proficiency. He took on the brunt of the guitar work for the night. His consistently on-target playing was peppered with equal parts talent and swagger. Equally impressive were supporting players Tom Peloso and Eric Judy. They plucked, pumped and bowed an arsenal of over a dozen instruments, including double bass, pump organ,fiddle and slide guitar. Although their eclectic contributions were hard to hear at times (the same could be said for just about everything that night), they provided a welcomed variety to the otherwise guitar-heavy tunes.

And then came the big finish: two selections from We Were Dead..., "Fire It Up," and "SpittingVenom." If anyone were curious about the group's live performance, they need only to see these last two songs. They played like maniacs, with more earnestness and veracity then I thought humanly possible. The group took liberties with the last song, and extended it to epic proportions. As Peloso raised his trumpet during the breakdown, the crowd roared in collective approval. It was as if everyone in the house knew something was about to happen, and this trumpet served as that thing's embodiment. Marr and Brock thundered in with distorted precision as they sang the song's ending mantra, which took on anthemic proportions, "Cheer up baby, it wasn't always quite so bad. For every bit of venom that came out the antidote was had."

The group triumphed over the sound system's shortcomings, delivering a simply amazing performance. With every year, Modest Mouse seems to just get better, improving on their musicianship, songwriting, dedication and maturity. Last week at The Pageant was no different. Crazily-catchy, bitter-sweet and utterly smart: Modest Mouse delivered everything I'd come toexpect, and raised the bar yet again. | Glen Elkins

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