Review: Modest Mouse, Brand New roar through nostalgic night at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre
As the clock wound down on his 41st birthday, Isaac Brock treated himself to an odd serenade, teased before and woven into the Modest Mouse song Dashboard: Burl Ives’ A Holly Jolly Christmas.
"That's my birthday song,” the singer said Saturday from the stage at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. “He sounds like a dirty s---. He sounds like a gross old grandpa."
Hey, nostalgia hits us all in strange ways as we age. It’s a big reason why Modest Mouse and Brand New, two beloved alternative rock bands from the dawn of this century, can still draw thousands of mostly 20- and 30-something fans on a sweltering summer night.
Both are respected bands with cult followings, but only modest mainstream success (the lone exception being Modest Mouse’s 2004 hit Float On). But the fans who love them really, really love them, and have no problem shelling out for a night of post-millennial nostalgia, complete with stacks of vinyl records from a pop-up shop near the merch stand.
This co-headlining tour sees both bands playing full 90-minute sets, trading lead billing every night. On Saturday, it was Modest Mouse’s turn to headline, though Brand New certainly could’ve owned the top slot. Maybe they should have, given the feverish audience response and the growing sense that their days as a band are numbered (although if they do end up dropping one more album, it’s hard not to see a farewell tour coming through Florida).
The Long Island group entered nonchalantly but purposefully, to mics wrapped lovingly in floral bouquets, before kick-starting the roaring Sink, Gasoline and Millstone. Each one -- particularly the elephantine Sink -- made those longstanding Nirvana comparisons seem not that far off. It's the quietLOUDquiet dynamic of their flame-throwing guitars, is what it is. That and frontman Jesse Lacey's wounded howl on ragers like I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light; At The Bottom; and Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't, where he howls about wanting to start a craze and ignite the airwaves while "concentrating on falling apart."
Lacey's way with melancholy has always hit home with fans. "I am not your friend!" he screamed on Sowing Season, as the audience screamed right back. "I am just a man who knows how to feel!" He proved it on the ensuing Play Crack the Sky, dedicated to the tour crews and stripped way down, with Lacey on guitar and guitarist Vin Accardi – who spent most of the set dancing, swirling and swinging his ax around with abandon – on tambourine and harmonies.
Diehards yowled along with every word, particularly on fan favorites like the aching, slow-burning Jesus; the ominous Sowing Season; and Sic Transit Gloria...Glory Fades, with its careening crash course between alt-funk and screamo. Some even sang to rarities like Noro and 1996 (a once-leaked demo, since officially released, in what seems to have been its first-ever live performance).
On epic, crashing closer You Won't Know/Tautou, Lacey stood on a monitor and turned his back to the crowd, singing toward drummer Brian Lane, ending the song with a torrent of feedback and wave of his cap, and tossing tossing those microphone flowers into the pit as the stage backdrop read "Brand New: 2000-2018."
There was no such sense of finality to Modest Mouse's set, even though they've been at it for much longer, and have also been known to take extended hiatuses. But their eclectic style sustains their live energy to this day.
Opening with the banjo-, fiddle- and brass-powered hootenanny This Devil's Workday, they segued into the chugging guitar rockers Satellite Skin and Bury Me With It with ease, Brock convulsing with electric energy.
Maybe it was the birthday vibes, but Brock played with vibrancy and verve, and, as usual, wasn’t afraid to mix things up. Late in the night, he appeared to throw the show's pre-planned setlist out the window, powwowing with the band before swapping up the last five or so songs. I’d never pretend to know what’s going on inside Brock’s head, but this may have been a night when he was just feeling the birthday love, and wanted to freewheel a bit.
Certainly, this eight-piece incarnation of Modest Mouse has the chops for it. Horns, fiddles, stand-up bass, three or more percussionists at a time – they sounded their best when taking a kitchen-sink approach, as on the gypsy-rock blast King Rat; the seething, majestic Spitting Venom; or the quasi-orchestral march The Good Times Are Killing Me, which closed the show.
Guitar rock dominated Modest Mouse's setlist, from the crushing, relentless Invisible to the almost psychedelic Night On the Sun to the New Wavey Missed the Boat. At times they seemed to channel the Cure (the shoegazey The Tortoise and the Tourist), at times David Bowie (the glammy, clattering Paper Thin Walls), at times any number of post-punk legends (Tiny Cities Made of Ashes, the Burl Ives-assisted Dashboard).
The result was an utter wave of sound (and, at times, noise) that too often felt louder than the sum of its parts. Most of Brock’s inscrutable banter, and many of his lyrics, were unintelligible due to what felt like an overbearing sound mix. It was almost a relief whenever the band dialed back a bit for a song like Pups to Dust or Dramamine, where you could hear some space in the music, some room to appreciate the band’s intricate songcraft and musicality.
What was clear Saturday night was just how much fans of a certain age have missed Modest Mouse – and, in the case of Brand New, how much they’ll be missed come 2019. No wonder Brock was in a party mood – that’s a holly, jolly sentiment, indeed.
-- Jay Cridlin