It’s been a while since Modest Mouse last graced a Los Angeles stage, and the crowd was noticeably antsy at Avalon last night, the venue the band chose to kick off its long-awaited return to touring. But that wasn’t the only reason anticipation was running high. As the lights went down, audience members craned their necks up to take a peek at the band’s newest (and oldest) member: former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, whose trademark playing style promised to be a good fit with the band’s jagged guitar-led melodies.
The combination did not disappoint, and as Modest Mouse launched into the warm-up show, anyone who forgot was quickly reminded of what brought this indie wonder out from the underground in the first place — spiky chords, a steady, almost militaristic beat and the strained, cracked vocals of singer Isaac Brock.
In truth, the band’s presence in the City of Angels had never really gone away, thanks in part to the loyalty of local radio station KROQ, which has been spinning “Float On” ad nauseam since its 2004 release. Perhaps that explains all the baseball-cap-wearing undergrads filling the floor: clean-cut guys, scrappy guys — just a lot of guys — looking to hoot, holler and have a good time. And for that, the set was the perfect soundtrack.
Starting things off with the high-energy “Ocean Breathes Salty,” off 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, fans bopped in unison to the rhythms of two drummers and Brock’s purposely not-quite-tuned guitar, then took it up a notch with “Black Cadillacs,” also from Good News. But it quickly became evident that the band’s six members were still working out the kinks on the new stuff from their forthcoming album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. One such track, the mid-tempo “Fire It Up,” in which Marr and Brock trade off vocals, sounded unintentially sloppy. But they got it together in time for “Float On,” which came around mid-set and, thanks to Marr’s contribution, never sounded better.
It was then that you could see Brock — dressed in a stiff plaid shirt tucked neatly into his gray Dockers-looking trousers — finally starting to let loose, taking his guitar for a ride over the shoulder and mimicking his own syncopated strums with a step-in-place march. By the time they got to deep cuts, “The View” and “Bukowski,” the band had found its stride. After slowing down for more new tracks (“Missed the Boat” and “Dashboard”) and a couple of classics (“Tiny Cities,” “People We Know”) Modest Mouse veered off into spacey territory, incorporating the sounds of horns, percussion and accordion into several winding jams. And with Marr taking the lead on “Bury Me With It,” the set closed to resounding cheers from a satisfied crowd.
Brock, normally a man of few words, made an offer to fans constantly shouting out requests for early songs like “3rd Planet” and “Doin’ the Cockroach.” “Go ahead, make a wish, and we’ll do a medley of all those songs that consists of none of those songs,” he teased before launching into “Invisible in Your Car,” the last new track of the night, whose Clash-like ferocity and big payoff choruses made for the perfect encore. But to appease the clamoring crowd, the band chose fan favorite “Dramamine” off of 1996’s This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, as the show’s closer. It was a conclusion that made everyone in the crowd — frat boys and hipsters alike — raise a glass in cheer.