Modest Mouse - Live in Philadelphia (Cover Artwork)

Modest Mouse

Live in Philadelphia (2019)

live show

If the price you’ve got to pay to see Modest Mouse in 2019 is sitting alongside some enthusiastic Black Keys fans in a stadium, well … I was willing to pay it, but every person must be accountable to their own wallet and standards.

Let us agree, here and now, that there are worse places to see a legacy indie rock band in the early-to-mid twilight of its career than the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. The subway goes right to it. The interior has recently been renovated. It feels like seeing a show in an especially luxurious airport lounge. The beers, while expensive, are enormous. The bathrooms, while crowded with people on the other end of giant beers, are efficient and plentiful. If one must see a show in the sort of place that would hang a “Billy Joel 25 Career Sell Outs!” banner next to the Canadian flag, there are lower depths.

Say this for Black Keys fans: they like to wear a short sleeve t-shirt over a long sleeve t-shirt. They also like to wear those big black hats that one girl in that one commercial is wearing. It makes everyone look like they’re either going to or coming from a goth Kentucky Derby. Say this, as well: they’re very excited to see the Black Keys and thoroughly less excited to see Modest Mouse. Which makes sense, considering the Keys are touring in support of their first album in five years (the very funnily named Let’s Rock that I am confident sounds exactly what you think it sounds like) and Modest Mouse is touring in support of nothing in particular.

Here’s a fun game to play from the cheap seats during a Modest Mouse show: See how many people in the good seats are on their phone in a given song. It’s dark as hell and you’re way the hell up there, so anytime any person decides to check out for a second, you can get a look at it. The results will surprise you. For example, when Modest Mouse launched into Good News for People Who Love Bad News-era b-side “King Rat,” almost no one on the folding chairs was looking at their phone. That could be out of shock as much as anything else, for however much honking, howling cacophony is on that record, double it live (Another fun game: imagine what someone’s dad who just came to hear “Gold on the Ceiling” thinks as “King Rat” is blasted at jet-engine volume).

This, as it turns out, is the reason to see Modest Mouse in a stadium, touring for nothing. The set list was as inventive and surprising as any I’d seen the band perform. Certain moments must be hit to keep the lights on – your “Float On,” your “Missed the Boat,” what have you – and it wasn’t like the band was digging deep into it’s early 90s material, but there is something thrilling about hearing, say “Bukowski” and “This Devil’s Workday” in all their screaming, discordant glory; angular weird songs from the ancient days of the band’s polished period. Thrilling, too, to hear the band turn “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” into their own personal “Freebird” from Hell, full of extended guitar solos full of wrong notes. Even something like “Dashboard,” which was accurately described by Pitchfork years ago as “a Las Vegas version of Float On,” has the ability to force its fit down your throat with the power of a hockey stadium behind it.

Modest Mouse started as a three-piece all those years ago. It tours as an eight- or nine-piece now. The simpler songs suffer because of the glut. “Gravity Rides Everything” and “Float On” – two of the band’s more straightforward tunes – fell down due to a misalignment between the three guitars, the two drum sets, the two keyboards, the bass guitar. “Dramamine”, which has always been a sour song’s impression of a sweet one, was extra tart before lead Mouse Issac Brock pulled it together. He seemed to enjoy his moments of guitar heroism, second only to his moments of banjo punchin’. Always a mumbler, it was hard to make out his banter from the rafters. Lot of phones during those parts, though.