Sunday, November 11, 2007

Concert Review: Modest Mouse At Burton Cummings Theatre, Winnipeg, MB, Nov. 7, 2007

It was rush seating on the floor to see Modest Mouse, one of the most celebrated US indie bands in recent memory, whose fans are split over their older, more intimate material versus the MTV-friendly direction of their last two albums.

I left the house around 6:30 pm, and after finally parking a bit further away than I had hoped, I joined the line up of around 30 people. The last time I checked online, the show was not sold out, but the 1646 seat venue did apparently run out of tickets. I struck up a conversation with Sean, a young bearded free spirit, originally from Winnipeg, who was based in Taiwan, teaching English and pursuing work with local Asian rock bands. It's always fun to speak with someone as passionate about music as I am, since you can learn about other cool bands to check out.

Finally, the doors opened and I made my way right to the front of the stage, to park myself in row 1. Sean tracked me down and sat beside me, while hoping that his girlfriend would find us, which she eventually did.

Right away, the young fans began to stream to the front of the stage to see the opening band, Love As Laughter. They sounded like any number of melodic indie bands and could go on to bigger things. I will be checking them out.

Nothing could have prepared the audience for the next band, Philadelphia's Man Man. Wearing a uniform of white t-shirts with sweat bands, these guys were part musical act and part performance art, a modern day vaudevillian group.

They were very spastic, with the lead singer / keyboardist jumping around and yet managing to play in sync with the other band members who were bashing out syncopated, frantically paced pop. At one point, all members started playing kazoos to the delight of the audience. The lead singer threw something towards the bassist who batted it into the head of the drummer. Far from seeming out of the ordinary, this was just par for the course with these wacky musical pranksters.

During one of the numbers, the sound changed for the better, with a fuller bottom end. This was due to the two Modest Mouse drummers sneaking onto their kits and pounding away with Man Man. The drummers, dressed as ghosts in white sheets, injected even more excitement into the show and fans went nuts due to their surprise appearance. As much fun as they were, I can't help but wonder that they will have an intense but very limited appeal. People who are into Frank Zappa might want to give them a try.

Unfortunately, almost an hour passed before Modest Mouse took the stage, at around 10:10 pm. During this time, I marveled at the discretion the bouncers showed as they blocked the aisle to the floor many fans had streamed towards, hoping to get into the front row. As the standing area filled up, the bouncers would turn people away while letting others back in who stepped away for bathroom breaks and beer runs. The smart ones would politely get their attention and ask them if they would be allowed back in. Usually, the answer was yes, but as the area became more packed, some were told that they were taking chances.

Some people who were turned away left quietly and found seats emptied by fans who did it make to the front, while a few argued. One guy who either had multiple sclerosis or was a bit smashed (or perhaps a bit of both), had us grinning as he argued with two bouncers for several minutes. Resembling a young, bearded John Belushi, this feisty cannonball eventually did end up at the front and was seen grabbing people by the neck as he took them on a wild bouncing tour of the pit. I had to brace myself as they collided with me a few times. I looked over to this one bouncer and he reached out with his arm to block these guys from crashing into my part of the floor, all the while enjoying the energy of the fans. Everywhere you looked, it was a sea of flashing teeth, smiles and bouncing, happy people.

The band took the stage with "Black Cadillacs," which had several fans in the pit singing along. Lead singer and band leader Isaac Brock occasionally spoke to the audience but it was largely unintelligible. At one point, someone threw something on stage, which prompted him to snap that if they did it again, he would "fuckin' kill" them. Someone threw a scarf in front of this older looking guitar player with a shock of jet black hair.

In the lineup, I spoke about how Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths, was now in the band and wondered if many of the predominantly young fans would even know who he was. It was only when someone shouted out his name that it occurred to me who this obviously stellar guitarist was. Marr played superbly and was far beyond the caliber of musician you would expect in an indie band. He only spoke to the crowd a few times, to acknowledge the fans in the upper levels. When the encore was over, Marr picked up the scarf, put it on and offered thanks in the general direction from where it came. Recent news from the UK has Marr also serving as a visiting professor at Salford University. Since the breakup of The Smiths in 1987, Marr has performed and recorded with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Oasis, Beck, The Pretenders, Billy Bragg, and The Pet Shop Boys, among others.

During "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," Brock took to the front of the stage and flew into a spontaneous rant, but again, it was near-impossible to make out what he was saying. Some of the songs utilized both drummers while some had one on percussion.

Still, Modest Mouse, from my intimate vantage point, were superb and were light years more interesting than a recent Ozzy Osbourne/Rob Zombie show I also attended. Their songs are distinctive, and have become increasingly catchy with their last two albums. Some see this as a sellout, while others view it as progress. About a third of the songs were from their first three albums, and several gems had to be skipped. I would have loved to have heard "Missed The Boat," "Florida," "Spitting Venom," "Ocean Breathes Salty," "Dramamine," "3rd Planet," and "The Stars Are Projectors."

Without a doubt, this was one of the most fun concerts that I have been to in years. Curiously, the major local newspaper thought the show was a bust, as they witnessed people leaving early and complaining about the band being limp and lifeless. I have this theory that the closer you are to the stage, the more likely you're going to enjoy the show. I don't know where the newspaper reviewer was sitting, but I found the band was superb. Sure, in comparison to the manic Man Man, Modest Mouse were a bit sedated, but they still put on a thrilling show. Isaac Brock did find his groove and exploded off his feet a few times on his side of the stage. He also strapped on a banjo for "Bukowski" and "Satin In A Coffin," both from 2004's Grammy-nominated Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

Modest Mouse were strong musically although the sound wasn't as good as I had hoped.

Setlist (in no particular order)

Black Cadillacs
Paper Thin Walls
Here It Comes
Trailer Trash
Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes
Float On
Fire It Up
Satin In A Coffin
Bury Me With It
The View


We've Got Everything
King Rat
Parting Of The Sensory
Out Of Gas

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