NEW YORK — "Check out how precious we are," said Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, gesturing to the barrier separating the audience from the front of the stage. "We've even got a moat."
He was making fun of the idea that anyone would rush the stage at a Modest Mouse show, and he spent a good part of Monday evening mocking his band's recent success.
Modest Mouse are one of the breakthrough acts of the year, yet it's hard to think of an artist who seems to want it less than Brock. He's got a semi-hit single, Video Music Awards nominations, an album approaching platinum status and a two-night stand at the Hammerstein Ballroom filled with diehard fans — and the guy acts like he's just been handed a raw hot dog.
See, Modest Mouse were spawned during the golden age of alternative rock (an era that roughly spanned 1988-97), a time when it was nearly mandatory to look down your nose at success or any trappings of rock stardom. And although most of the bands from that time have returned to the obscurity they evidently craved, the spirit is alive and well in Brock (see "Modest Mouse Greet Success With A Rousing 'So What?' ").
He stood as far stage-left as possible, resolutely determined not to be the "frontman" (even though everyone, including him, knows that he is), ceding center-stage to a lanky gentleman who occasionally sang backup with his hands in his pockets. Brock's between-song banter consisted mostly of snarky wisecracks and unintelligible grousing. And his band — expanded at times to seven members, the sole visible evidence of a presumably heightened tour budget — sleepwalked through its big hit, an anticlimactic "Float On," early in the set.
All of this would be a bummer if the crowd hadn't been expecting it, knowing Brock's cantankerous nature and egging him on to even crankier heights. And even though the particulars were usually lost in the Hammerstein's cavernous acoustics, you could tell what he was talking about.
Despite — or perhaps thanks to — all of the above, the band's performance was tight, and the crowd lapped it up.
The set list focused on the band's two most recent albums — 2000's The Moon & Antarctica and the latest, Good News for People Who Love Bad News — but dipped way back into Modest Mouse's indie-era catalog as well, generally following the rule that the more obscure the song, the better they'd play it.
Brock's scrawny guitar and adenoidal whine were usually accompanied by two guitarists, a bassist, two drummers and occasionally that lanky backing singer, although all of the members dabbled in keyboards and/or percussion, breaking down to a semi-acoustic lineup (including string bass, harmonium and Brock on banjo) for rootsier material like "Wild Packs of Family Dogs" and "Bukowski."
Yet whenever Modest Mouse got too much momentum in one direction, they'd quickly snuff it out: The feedback-laden "Doin' the Cockroach" (which found Brock screaming into the pickup of his guitar) and the anthemic "Trailer Trash" and "3rd Planet" were followed by snotty banter and, in the latter case, by a comically drawn-out tease for an encore. Following Brock's threats that the band wasn't coming back, the house lights were brought up, then dimmed, then brought up, then dimmed again.
Finally, the group came out for a rousing romp through "The Good Times Are Killing Me" and a stirring "Bankrupt on Selling," performed nearly solo by Brock. He led the song into its soaring chorus, seemingly primed for the rest of the band to join in and take the song to a rousing crescendo — but instead, he put down his guitar and walked offstage, this time for good.
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