In 2013 Modest Mouse disappointingly cancelled their entire European tour to continue working on their new album which we today know by the title of Strangers to Ourselves. The album did compensate for the band’s absence yet a live appearance to come along with that would truly make up for past events. During their current North-American promotional tour Modest Mouse also made room for a three week ‘make up visit’ to Europe. Last friday it was the turn for the Dutch to re-embrace Brock et al in an overheated and Tour de France-minded Utrecht.
While in Europe Modest Mouse mostly plays larger festivals and historical music venues. The Vredenburg concert hall, which is now part of the TivoliVredenburg multi-complex, is one of those places. It’s renowned for the superb acoustics due to venue’s octagonal shape. With Kraftwerk playing at the same time in the Ronda stage Modest Mouse and their support act, World Gang, had the honour to reaffirm their relevance in the indie scene in one of the best known venues in The Netherlands. If that isn’t exciting enough, a last minute e-mail of TivoliVredenburg’s management informed us about the band arriving early and their wish to play a little longer. So happy days are here again right? Unfortunately, things did not work out in the way I had hoped for.
In a half full Vredenburg World Gang, a side project of Modest Mouse’s drummer, Jeremiah Green and electronica pioneer Darrin Wiener, kicked off the evening in style. From underneath two light-reflecting garments both lads treated the audience to some lengthy ambient. Except for the base pumping ‘Dolphin Smiles’ many spectators weren’t sure how to react to the music. Maybe ambient is more of thing to play at those early morning after parties? Nevertheless the garments and accompanying light show made the performance a fascinating watch. As two ghostly figures Green and Wiener droned away on their laptops whilst their garments reflected various colours into the hall. Musically it was a bit plain here and there but also it was nice enough to spend 15 minutes with before heading to the bar to grab another beer.
After the trip to the bar and back I took a seat on left hand side of the hall while the roadies finished up the stage setup. By the looks of large amount of instruments onstage we were in for a treat tonight, although it also felt a bit strange to see all this slickness surrounding a band was and still is famous for it’s ramshackled sound. Led by Isaac Brock all other seven (!) band members crammed themselves on stage to start of with two ‘oldies‘,‘Gravity Rides Everything’ and ‘Black Cadillacs’ before playing a track from their latest album. From the first notes on it was clear the band was dealing with serious sound issues. After ‘Lampshades On Fire’ Brock already made his excuses and continued the show by interchanging older and recent work. Alas the sound issues persisted, at least at the side I was hearing it from. Back in the day Vredenburg was built primarily to host classical orchestras and maybe the sides of the hall just didn’t fit Modest Mouse’s full rock lineup that well. A relocation to the centre of the hall directly in front of the band improved the sound quality a bit but most of it still was very unbalanced. The base and double drums dominated the entire hall during ‘Dashboard ‘leaving virtually no room for other instruments, such as the horns, and Brock’s vocals. Also at quiet moments when Brock spoke to the audience his voice was barely hearable. In the background technicians were working overtime yet without a significant result. The classic ‘Tiny Cities Made of Ashes’ disappointingly turned into a garbled mess with a lead guitar that was barely heard and muffled vocals.
After that Brock got somewhat agitated and paused the show for a short moment to reposition two of his many monitors. Brock, who was playing a the right side of the stage, also was physically separated from the rest of the band by a sheer amount of stage speakers. During the performance there was almost no interaction with his sidekick Jim Fairchild let alone the rest of the band. For better or worse the band uninspiredly struggled through the performance until Brock suddenly walked of the stage after playing ‘Dark Center of the Universe’ from the band’s monumental album The Moon & Antarctica (2000). The leftover members stared upon each other until Green summoned everyone to join him backstage. An awkward 5 or 10 minutes came over the audience as some fans kept cheering and others began booing. Cynically Brock returned playing ‘The Good Times Are Killing Me’ which, as became clear afterwards, was the start of the encore which ended with ‘The View’. It was however unclear that ‘The View’ was the end of the show because Brock once again stopped by starting a chat about smoking weed with a few fans in front of him. In response someone threw an empty plastic beer glass onstage which totally freaked out Brock: ’Why are you throwing this shit?!’, he called out loud and stampeded towards the backstage surprising his fellow band member once more. Hereafter the lights went on and, as I believe, many spectators empty-handed left Vredenburg. What a shame.
Of course a live show is a live show, so things can go wrong. But what happened here? Here’s my take on the evening’s events. Firsty Vredenburg’s acoustics aren’t that ideal for the full setup Modest Mouse brought with them. The Ronda stage would have been the better choice. Nevertheless other rock bands played in TivoliVredenburg’s main hall before without major problems like this. Also during the afternoon before the concert Modest Mouse appeared to be excited to play longer than planned. Did they not see the concert hall for an initial soundcheck then? Indeed, the later is a wild speculation, but it is strange though. Secondly I think the band itself is also to blame for the bad sound quality. Mostly I say this because in other recent live reviews coming from the States people also complained about the bad sound. Maybe the overambitious double drums and the volume of other instrumental subtleties are just too difficult to align. The ‘new’ Modest Mouse wants to excel in solidity, yet even a lot of seemingly simple other sounds settings (e.g. Brock just talking through a microphone) were not up to standards. Therfore I can only conclude they failed in creating a solid show tonight. Lastly Isaac Brock appeared to be shockingly arrogant towards his fellow band members and staff. During the show there was no or little interaction between him and the band and on top of that he also stood up the band twice by walking off stage. I don’t think that was part of the show. At some level Brock’s frustration is understandable, I however did not expect this childish behaviour from a singer with more then 20 years of experience.
On a brighter side I would say it’s nice the band, as a service to the fans, also played a lot of songs coming from their heydays. Nevertheless I think the bands ‘make up visit’ to the Netherlands failed bigtime due to bad acoustics, overambitiousness and frustrative behaviour. So, my most anticipated album of 2015 didn’t live up to my expectations and the supporting show is in fact the worst I’ve seen this year. This makes me wonder if Modest Mouse is still relevant to today’s indie rock scene. What happened to the band who ramshackled their way from performance to performance? Is the band drowning in it’s own ambition? How much creativity is still there left to build upon? Well, I don’t dare to answer these and other bold questions at this time. Let me just say be perfectly happy to put on The Moon & Antarctica later on this weekend and I’ll stick to that for the time being.
Seen live on July 3th 2015 at TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht
- Gravity Rides Everything
- Black Cadillacs
- Lampshades On Fire
- Doin’ the Cockroach
- Pups to Dust
- Tiny Cities Made of Ashes
- Strangers to Ourselves
- This Devil’s Workday
- Satin in a Coffin
- The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box
- Baby Blue Sedan
- Shit In Your Cut
- Dark Center of the Universe
- The Good Times Are Killing Me
- The World at Large
- The View
- Isaac Brock – lead vocals, guitars, banjo, keyboards
- Jeremiah Green – drums, percussion
- Tom Peloso – upright bass, trumpet, keyboards, fiddle
- Russell Higbee – bass, upright bass, guitar
- Jim Fairchild – guitars, vocals
- Lisa Molinaro – strings, bass, vocals, live keyboards
- Davey Brozowski – drums, percussion
- Robin Peringer – keyboards, effects
Review by Wander Meulemans // 040715