Past Daryl's Gun Shop and the Marshall County Sheriff's office, US Highway 30 snakes through the hills winding past the Iowa Veterans Home and into downtown Marshalltown. As I drive past the oversized Main Street houses, paint peeling under the constant pressure of deindustrialization, I clutch my tickets, numbered 497 and 498. There's an oasis somewhere, but all I can see is the Iowa I've known all my life.
What's the point of all this hackneyed verbosity? Many acts take artistic license in exploiting and exaggerating their surroundings. Tim Barry. Pitbull. The entire New York hardcore scene. Modern Life Is War is not one of those. What you hear in "Marshalltown" is exactly what you get driving through its streets. But luckily, there is something of an oasis on a given night in Marshalltown. And on April 26, 2008, that oasis was the Olive Street Moose Lodge, where 500 punk kids from across Iowa and across the US gathered to bid farewell to Modern Life Is War.
The Moose Lodge actually turned out to be an ideal venue for a sendoff of this magnitude. The setting had the type of hometown feel that can't be replicated in any bar or theater. There were no BS bouncers or macho security personnel, only what seemed to be friends and family of the band letting people enter and exit as they pleased and maintaining the friendliest of environments possible at a punk gig. There was a guest book on the table for fans to sign "like at a funeral" as vocalist Jeff Eaton put it, displaying the tremendous lengths people traveled to see the final show, from California to Massachusetts and even up to Canada. I felt a little guilty for only having to drive a half an hour.
Iowa native William Elliot Whitmore was taking the stage as I entered. I knew a bit about him from what I'd read without actually ever hearing him, and I can now say without hesitation that I am a fan. The audience reception was extremely good, especially as the tattooed blues & folk banjoist gushed about how much he loved Modern Life Is War, and Midnight in America in particular. Traditional folk band the Old Scratch Revival Singers took the stage next after getting talked up a bit by Eaton, but didn't seem to receive the same level of regard from the audience, with songs that lingered a fair amount too long to keep anyone's interest.
Finally, it was time for the main event. Interestingly, the way in which the band prepared to play said almost as much about them as their performance did. Instead of any grand theatrics to play up the gravity of Modern Life Is War's final hours, the band simply set up their equipment and did sound checks right in front of the audience, and when they were done, they started right away. Well, kind of.
As the lights lowered, the band launched into the first song from their very first album, and made it about a minute through the build-up of "Breaking the Cycle." Then the music stopped and Jeff Eaton announced, "We just broke the fucking stage." That's right, within 45 seconds of music, enough people has piled onto the stage that the whole front side had collapsed. There was an immense moment of tension as the stage electricity seemed to get flipped off, and someone yelled out "What the fuck!?" A man walked on stage and conferred with Eaton for a moment, and I'm sure many in the audience were thinking the unthinkable as I was, that we had just ruined a giant piece of the Moose Lodge, and the show was over. Thankfully, Eaton took the microphone and confidently announced the plan. "We're gonna move all the amps and equipment off the stage, then we're gonna move this entire stage outside, and we'll get on with the show right here." And it was so. Everyone pitched in (including the band), disassembling the stage in about fifteen minutes. Within a half an hour, everything was in place for round two, only this time it was gonna be a ground-level show.
Luckily, there were enough big guys on hand to create an informal barricade around the band, making sure the crowd didn't tumble forward and smash everything against the Moose Lodge wall. I have no idea how they managed this burden, but they did so masterfully, and while people like me thrashed about, surfed the crowd and moved freely with the giant mass of people, those guys kept the show going.
After starting over "Breaking the Cycle," the band went on to play all their fan favorites from throughout their three-album catalog, including Witness in its entirety (though not in its continuous order). Eaton routinely expressed his gratitude for everyone involved in the Iowa music scene and everyone who'd shown up to make the night so special, often losing articulation in the moment and relying on cheers to segue back into the music. He also dipped into a bit of MLIW history, retelling how the band gathered in drummer Tyler Oleson's basement when they had their first CDs pressed, laughing at the fact that they had to have a minimum of 500 made when they didn't even know 100 people period, and wondering how they would get rid of all those CDs. The set list was pretty much dead-on, though I could have gone for some of "The Motorcycle Boy Reigns" or "These Mad Dogs of Glory," but getting to hear "John and Jimmy" (in my opinion, one of the most epic 1:50 songs ever) and "Martin Atchet," one of the most intense songs period, helped the set exceed my expectations.
As the last notes of "Hair-Raising Accounts of Restless Ghosts" seeped through the speakers, Eaton and company were swarmed with hugs, thanks, and congratulations for their accomplishments. A big part of me wanted to go tell him how much I love their music and that am totally their biggest fan, and they mean so much to me, but instead I just wussed out and walked out the door with my girlfriend. So for what I didn't say then, I'll say now: Modern Life is War Is the best band to come out of Iowa in the 162 years its been a state. They've been an inspiration to every hopeless punk kid roaming the endless corn fields of this desolate farmland, wondering if there's anyone around that feels like them and words can't express how sorely they will be missed. Modern Life Is War: "Thanks for the great tunes."
Set list (approximate order):
- Breaking the Cycle
- I'm Not Ready
- Farmers Holiday Association
- John and Jimmy
- Stagger Lee
- The Outsiders
- Martin Atchet
- First and Ellen
- Young Man on a Spree
- Big City Dream
- Destination: Death or Better Days
- Young Man Blues
- Fuck the Sex Pistols
- A Tale of Two Cities (?)
- Hair-Raising Accounts of Restless Ghosts