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Live Review: Modest Mouse and the art of not playing the hit

As the audience began to file into The Anthem, the still-relatively new indoor concert venue at The Wharf in south-east DC, there was a certain restlessness in the air. The venue was smokey from the second you stepped foot into the doors, and the haze hung over the proceedings the entire night. 

Once inside, it was like the show was taking place in a swampy marsh, with the intensity of the heat causing more than a few people to step outside. No relief could be found by taking off your mask, unless it was to drink your beer, which was about ten dollars for a not-all together generous pour. The sound was surprisingly mediocre unless you stood at the very front of the pit.

All of this combined for an antsy audience, most of whom were simply happy to be back in a live music venue but unhappy that the hordes of unvaccinated Americans meant that their concerts had to come with multiple annoying stipulations. The Modest Mouse faithful were fully represented, shouting out their favourite songs like ‘Doin’ the Cockroach’ or ‘Bukowski’, but there appeared to be several casual fans as well. Drawn in either by the opening band The Districts or, like me, just wanting to see a rock show for the first time in over a year.

And a rock show they certainly got. As MM leader Isaac Brock bandied out in his red boiler suit, the crowd were immediately greeted with staples like ‘The World at Large’ and ‘Dramamine’. Throughout the show, tracks from the band’s latest album The Golden Casket were trotted out, and the flashing lights that accompanied tracks like ‘Fuck Your Acid Trip’ and ‘Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly’ sent the audience into gleeful hysterics. The band indulged some of the more casual fans halfway through by trotting out ‘Lampshades on Fire’, their 2014 single that I recall being played frequently on the DMV’s biggest alt-rock station, DC101, back when it was first released.

But for those not pogoing to songs like ‘Satin in a Coffin’, there was a notable lifeline that was hotly anticipated. ‘Float On’ is the outlier in the Modest Mouse discography, having been responsible for introducing the band to a wider audience in the salad days of early 2000s indie rock. With its squawky-voiced lead singer and Built to Spill-esque style, this band could now fill venues like The Anthem instead of sweating it out in basement shows for the rest of their existence. 

As the lights came down on their initial fifteen-song set, the audience roared with approval. The band were clearly plotting something backstage, as it took them a solid fifteen minutes to return for an encore. Not a crazy long time, mind you, but long enough for the crowd to begin to wonder if they were coming back out at all. When they did, they busted out ‘Breakthough’ from their 1996 debut, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. The audience didn’t know that this song would be a sign that MM were playing exclusively to the faithful fans that night.

After two cuts from The Golden Casket, the band took on ‘Black Cadillacs’ and ‘Spitting Venom’, two concert staples that still likely wouldn’t be known to casual fans. After ‘Venom’, the band departed again, but the lights didn’t come up. For the first time in 2021, the band were going to play two encores. Surely this would be the time to play ‘Float On’, or at the very least satiate the nearly seven-foot-tall sweaty dude who was shouting “Doin’ the Cockroach!” throughout the show.

As it turned out, neither would be played. Instead, another cut from The Golden Casket, ‘Japanese Trees’, and a slightly obscure track from 2000’s The Moon & Antarctica, ‘Tiny Cities Made of Ashes’, were trotted out. As the last notes of ‘Ashes’ faded away, Brock thanked the audience one more time, and up came the lights.

Anyone who had perused the band’s previous setlists throughout the tour would have been tipped off to the fact that, despite it being their biggest hit, MM didn’t play ‘Float On’ at every show. Brock is a fickle frontman, one who doesn’t really care about expectations or the desires of casual fans, so much as he cares about providing a killer show that fulfils his own needs as an artist. That’s how a large swath of concert-goers left puzzled that they didn’t hear ‘Float On’.

What they left with was a great, very long, very intense show. A show that should have had better sound, lower beer prices, and no masks (thanks to the nearly half of Americans who are currently unvaccinated), but a show that was enthralling, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining. It takes guts to walk into a venue like The Anthem, one that prides itself on bringing in those concert-goers who often don’t know a band’s full discography and not giving a large contingent the one song they know. 

Modest Mouse were able to pull it off by going bigger than they had on any tour stop yet, showing that if you only showed up for ‘Float On’, it’s time to do a deep dive.

(Here’s ‘Float On’, for anyone who missed not hearing it last night.)

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