Modest Mouse roar and ramble at their Melbourne Bluesfest sideshow

Photos: Cameron Stewart

Isaac Brock is always the most charismatic person in the room. The Modest Mouse frontman and bandleader is a precious, precocious unit, forever wringing a stellar array of mind–twisting sounds from both guitar and mouth. Arguably one of the most singular and under-appreciated songwriters of his generation, Brock and his core band’s ability to craft an absorbing and wholly-unique creative universe is one of the wonders of modern rock music.

Modest Mouse currently perform as a flabby eight-piece band. Of those eight, there are at any one time at least three people on stage adding next to nothing to the experience, undermining the theatre so crucial to the band’s meticulous world. It’s not just musical—the power of Brock’s antics, effort, and incredible scene-building, are constantly sapped by the dour, naggingly expendable presence of extraneous band members.

From percussionist Ben Massarella, who, despite endlessly tinkering with an array of curios, scans as completely inaudible and unnecessary throughout the show, through second peripheral percussionist Davey Brozowski (sat alongside the band’s co-founding virtuoso drummer Jeremiah Green) and studious, often indistinguishable multi-instrumentalists Tom Peloso and Lisa Molinaro, Modest Mouse routinely looks like a workforce waiting around for their CEO to say something funny. Fortunately, that CEO is regularly profound.

Tonight is Melbourne’s first Modest Mouse showing since a two–night stand at the Prince Of Wales in 2011. Perhaps it was the then–fresh departure of original bassist Eric Judy, but that tour’s first night fumbled badly, before the second night soared in a way that felt religious. Five years later, a Modest Mouse show oscillates between a batch of incredible songs and the live band’s occasional ability to do them justice.

It doesn’t help that tonight they’re playing in the side-curtained, atmosphere-free concrete expanse of Margaret Court Arena. “Apparently tennis halls are good for mumbling,” jokes Brock after spritely opener ‘Ocean Breathes Salty’. They belt the place to life with ‘Be Brave’ from last year’s Strangers To Ourselves, and deliriously frantic The Moon And Antarctica mainstay, ‘Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes’, which tilts from cruisy studio–experiment to full–bore, meth–at–the–disco party.

Many of Modest Mouse’s best songs are characterised by this kind of wide-eyed, spooky, fever-dream Americana—otherwise taut pop songs built on the barest of particular instrumentation. Recent single ‘Lampshades On Fire’ bounces as a great example of the latter, in a lineage connected to ‘Dashboard’ and ‘Float On’, all providing bright bursts of momentum in the clattering set. From there…

OK something happens here that has nothing to do with Modest Mouse, but in terms of my weird experiences at a gig, it’s up there with seeing someone deep in the crowd at a múm concert pull out stringy handfuls of cooked noodles from their backpack, and dangle them into their mouth while the band played.

Tonight is an arena show. The place is big. Forty metres wide, ceilings twenty-metres high, that sort of thing. I’m standing on the floor in the centre of the room during ‘Lampshades…’ when a solid-sized spider appeared in mid-air dangling just above me. It swayed inches over the head of the guy in front, then began a long lateral movement down across the crowd, lit by stage lights, evidently connected to a web that had to have been at least the distance from the floor to the roof. Just as it was about to hit the floor or land on one of the people now frantically trying to get out of its way, a dude stepped forward and clapped his hands together on it with a boom. It was powerfully unsettling. Nearly as upsetting as the garish, pudding–bellied bros who would remove their shirts later just for ‘Float On’.

“You have to accept this is how a Modest Mouse show goes – Brock the reliable star around which his so often workmanlike bandmates resolutely orbit.”

…they chugged into the slow-moving ‘Fire It Up’ and an epic ‘Dark Centre Of The Universe’ that once again had Brock bugging out. The singer pulled on a banjo for ‘King Rat’, the first of several tracks that finally suggested the rich, four-dimensional plane a band of eight people might conjure, boasting flashes of trumpet, violin, and some pretty work from guitarist Jim Fairchild. ‘Baby Blue Sedan’ gave some aching sweetness, while ‘The Devil’s Workday’ had Brock in Haka–esque stance, hacking at the front of his every word. Startling highlight of the night, ‘Cowboy Dan’, remains so damn powerful that for a moment the song’s unhinged redneck protagonist walked among us on the moonlit reservation, even as Margaret Court Arena staff served chips up the back.

But again the band lanced the dynamic of ‘Gravity Rides Everything’, ‘Black Cadillacs’,  and Strangers To Ourselves lowlight ‘Wicked Campaign’. Again they’d suddenly coalesce to give songs like ‘The Best Room’, ‘Shit In Your Cut’, ‘Paper Thin Walls” and ‘The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box’ a new dimension.

You have to accept this is how a Modest Mouse show goes – Brock the reliable star around which his so often workmanlike bandmates resolutely orbit. In some ways it’s an unfair assessment; this configuration can achieve great things, and across six consistent albums there’s no shortage of first class material to draw from. But again, as is so often the case with Modest Mouse live, more is less.

Modest Mouse perform this Sunday on the penultimate night of Bluesfest 2016.