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Modest Mouse at Cuthbert: Not dad rock, yet

2015’s underwhelming Strangers to Myself was my last taste of Modest Mouse as I entered the Portland band’s nearly sold-out show at Eugene’s Cuthbert Amphitheater on May 25. Admittedly, I’ve yawned my way through the record only a handful of times. And while not exactly bad, Strangers is at best mellower, more grown up (and for a band that once sang “I don’t know but I been told/You never die and you never grow old” that’s a grave offense, indeed). But at worst, Strangers simply seems uninspired, dull, safe; the gravest of offenses for a band whose lead singer, guitarist and troublesome mouthpiece Isaac Brock is known for using his guitar (and occasionally a banjo) like a switchblade, a spray paint can or a car driven too fast on a curvy mountain road.

So seeing them in Eugene, I was concerned that Modest Mouse had gone dad rock. We’re all gonna die, but do we have to grow old? And as the band shuffled on stage launching into a languid “The World at Large” off their 2004 breakthrough hit Good News for People Who Like Bad News, I was concerned.

But soon enough Brock and his cohort warmed up, building a full head of steam, working out a set of exactly the Modest Mouse songs you’d want to hear: Brock’s singing voice a little Frank Black, a little Screaming Jay Hawkins, his guitar squall barging into the band’s conversation, sometimes taking Brock to jittery places he didn’t even seem to understand. And Brock’s still a smartass, pausing mid set he taunted the audience: “How’s the internet? Keep plugging it with quarters. It’s sure to catch on.”

So in the end, a set list of familiars (yes, they played “Float On” and “Dashboard”) is both satisfying and not, but maybe that’s just where Brock is right now. Once he sang, from “Bukowski” also off Good News: “God who’d want to be such an asshole?” and this, mixed with Brock’s tabloid bad behavior, captured the tone of a young man’s hungover morning, filled with regret. Now, as Brock sings it as he did in Eugene, you sense he’s learned a thing or two. We all die, we all grow old, let’s hope, like Brock and his band (still one of the most interesting indie rock bands in the Northwest) we learn a thing or two along the way.

— Photos by Jeff Peterson