Saturday, August 2, 2014

Modest Mouse at Echo Beach, Toronto, August 1, 2014

Photo: Tom Pandi

August 1, 2014 was a big day for me; it marked the first time I ever saw Modest Mouse live. I've now seen every band in my Top 10, so it was nice to check the last one off my list.

Since the concert was announced in early June, I've been playing a list of 45 songs that have been played at one time or another on the current tour. I must have listened to that at least 40 times. In the past week or so, I've been playing every CD just about every day. I've also sampled the new songs that haven't been released, so I was highly anticipating an almost perfect night, and expecting to know every song.

It came close.

As usual, my ritual started with a visit to Trimurti on Queen Street West for a pre-concert Chicken Jalfrezi. Then I made my way to Echo Beach via the TTCs' replacement bus service. No streetcar this time. After failing to find any T-shirts I liked online in recent weeks, I pounced at the chance to buy a couple shirts from the official merchandise stall. At $25 each, I couldn't pass up that opportunity. There were a few CDs for $15 each, but nothing I didn't already own. I stuffed the two shirts in the pockets of my jeans and claimed a spot about 50 feet from the stage.

The opening acts weren't bad. Mimicking Birds conjured up a dreamy atmosphere and the vocalist's fragile voice worked well in the overall mix. I was excited to discover that the sound quality was excellent. Then Kevin Drew took to the stage. This was more of a traditional rock sound than I would usually listen to, but the band had some talent. The drummer was the highlight. Around 9:30, Modest Mouse arrived on stage. Two drummers, a violinist, bass, guitar, keyboards, and of course, Isaac Brock with his guitar. Apparently, he feels naked without it.

The setting was close to perfect with darkness falling, punctuated every five minutes by the lights of inaudible planes coming in to land at Toronto City Airport.

I've been finding it difficult to listen to any other bands since digging deeper into Modest Mouse's catalog. Right now, this could well be my favorite band on the planet. If you understand that kind of obsession with music, you have probably played this game; what would your ideal setlist look like? I've mentally compiled a list of songs I was desperate to hear live, and I was curious to find out how many of the songs would actually be played.

The opener started with Brock bellowing "well" a few times and strumming a banjo, so we were underway with King Rat. Then into Ocean Breathes Salty, with the whole band heavily involved in the mix. This is where I first noticed that the second guitar didn't blend perfectly into the overall sound as it does on the album. It was still great to hear it live, but it wasn't quite perfect.

Dashboard was up next. Although I like every song on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, some are more commercial and polished than I would prefer. The live version of Dashboard has more urgency and a rougher edge to it, so that might help make a good album even better for me. After a brief rant from Brock expressing the desire to be struck by lightning, as long as he lived to talk about it, we were treated to one of the highlights. 3rd Planet has always been one of my favorites and it was performed just about perfectly. "The universe is shaped exactly like the earth." That song, live, in the open air beneath the stars; need I say more?

The first new song, Sugar Boats, had a crazed carnival vibe to it. It makes me excited for the new album, when it eventually arrives. More banjo as Satin in a Coffin kicked in. You can't make the claim that all Modest Mouse songs sound the same. Then it was time for the second-best song of the night, Dark Center of the Universe. I've always thought that The Moon & Antarctica works best as a whole and that something is lost if you isolate the individual tracks, but Universe definitely works on its own. At times driving, at other times haunting, the lyrics always compelling; I'm so happy I heard it live.

Fire it Up, what can I say? It honestly was beautifully done. The World at Large was magnificent. Another song that works well live and outdoors. The crowd was joining in throughout. I appreciate Good News for People Who Love Bad News more each time I hear it. Then another new song, Shit In Your Cut. Massive bass defined that song. It's always hard to evaluate songs that you're not familiar with, but again, it left me excited for the new album. 

Out of Gas was a pleasure, and I would happily savor every minute of any track from The Lonesome Crowded West. If you haven't explored the band's full catalog, you really need to. I wrote about why a few days ago. The crowd favorite Float On followed, and was hard to fault. With so many people joining in, it had a community feel. Finally, I was among like-minded people with taste close to mine. I'm also older than the band and almost everyone who attended, but I can't do much about that. I can't imagine not loving this music when I am 70.

I would have been pretty gutted had they not played Doin' the Cockroach, but it finally showed up. Lucky 13? It was the clear highlight of the night for me. The live version was just enormous. Keeping that tempo, the final song of the main set was A Different City; easily the best that has ever sounded, and I have always loved it.

The first track after the break was the only selection from the band's mighty debut, This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. My appreciation for that album has soared over the past few weeks. Custom Concern is slow, thoughtful, majestic, haunting, and a few other things. I was very happy to hear it. Then another treat, the bass-laden Tiny Cities Made of Ashes. Modest Mouse becoming a more psychotic version of Talking Heads? There's a lot going on in that rhythm section. If it had been omitted, I probably would have been unhappy about it. The final track was The Good Times Are Killing Me, which featured plenty of crowd involvement during the chorus.

My overall experience was very good, but short of perfection. I was uncomfortable all night because I only had a few inches of space in which to move. A couple of women in front of me found it necessary to hold a conversation during many of the songs, and occasionally rounded things off by jabbing me in the stomach as they danced. But that's all part of the experience and I wouldn't want to stifle anyone's enjoyment. The mix was slightly off, but the sound quality was excellent. Brock is clearly a bit of a madman at times, rocking so hard on one track that his hat fell off. He barked, whined, screamed, and, at times, delivered more tranquil vocals. 

The biggest disappointment was that the set wasn't longer. Sure, we had around 90 minutes, but the previous stop on the tour featured 24 songs as opposed to the 17 we were given. I badly wanted to hear The Whale Song, Dramamine, Black Cadillacs, Bury Me with It, Teeth Like God's Shoeshine, Broke, Tundra/Desert and Spitting Venom. I could probably list 50 more.

Would I see Modest Mouse again? Just give me that chance.

Full Setlist:

King Rat
Ocean Breathes Salty
3rd Planet
Sugar Boats
Satin in a Coffin
Dark Center of the Universe
Fire It Up
The World at Large
Shit in Your Cut
Out of Gas
Float On
Doin' the Cockroach
A Different City

Custom Concern
Tiny Cities Made of Ashes
The Good Times Are Killing Me

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