Isaac Brock leads the band Modest Mouse in the first of two back-to-back sold-out performances on Dec. 13, 2022 at 9:30 Club. (Photo by Casey Vock)
When a young band’s pouring its collective effort and energy into its music and finding itself, a breakthrough in the studio might be just around the corner. If and when that happens, the result can establish the trajectory of the group’s sound and set a tone for its listeners for years to come.
And while some of the many fans of this band from the Pacific Northwest might debate to no end which record is most worthy of its own tour, Modest Mouse has read and heard so much praise for its 1997 album The Lonesome Crowded West, that the only sensible way to commemorate its 25th anniversary would be to celebrate it in live form — on repeat.
Playing the first of two sold-out nights on Dec. 13 at 9:30 Club, Modest Mouse was keeping its promise and plan to venture across the country to perform this album in full to fans who adore the group and specifically head singer and lead guitarist Isaac Brock, one of the band’s three founding members in Issaquah, Washington, back in 1992.
Originally released by Seattle’s influential label Up Records, the album was heralded then and in the following years and even more recently as being a monumental indie rock album of the era, characterized by Brock’s supernatural talents as a lyricist with thrilling spontaneity and a boundless, frenzied approach to guitar melodies.
Refresh yourself on Modest Mouse’s celebrated 1997 album The Lonesome Crowded West:
In a remarkable documentary released by Pitchfork in 2012, Modest Mouse is revealed to be an even more incredible story than casual fans might realize, and this album and its genesis were a turning point in establishing the group as one of the most promising in a scene absolutely brimming with talent and earning a wider appeal that foreshadowed the band’s greater success in the early 2000s, including an eventual Grammy nomination.
But Brock and his mates earned what came to them, as they were ambitious in those days when Netscape Navigator was a thing but there certainly was no bevy of online resources available to help bands communicate and promote themselves. Even then, the group — including longtime drummer Jeremiah Green and original bassist Eric Judy — treated Modest Mouse like a full-time job, and they recorded several demos on the way to earning the emphatic support of key local industry figures. Proof of their hard work and eagerness to tour to help their cause, by the time they recorded The Lonesome Crowded West, they’d already played gigs at Fletcher’s Bar in Baltimore and at 9:30 Club.
What was celebrated by the band’s fans and music critics alike back in 1997 was plain to the ear last week in the nation’s capital, even if the makeup of the group looks quite different than it did when these tracks were recorded in Olympia and Seattle. At 47 years old, Brock still bursts with vitality as a vocalist and shreds on the guitar with brilliance and hysteria, pumping his hands to create rhythmic intensity and unrelenting notes and effects that ring off the metal of his guitar or bounce from it in any direction.
For anyone who jumped on this bandwagon after this album was offered up to the world, the first of two shows in DC served as a convincing reminder of the importance of the recording as a confidence-building runway for what would become a prominent group. At 9:30 Club on Dec. 13, the set yielded unforgettable takes, including a daunting and astounding “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” and a raucous, groovy “Doin’ The Cockroach.”
Vividly barked, extraordinary puns on what was his own life at the time and with his keen perception that the west as he knew it was turning into nothing but shopping centers and parking lots, Isaac’s words in some songs seem wildly prescient. But with his perspective so much more informed and seasoned, there’s something even more gripping and moving about them today.
A timeless and painfully beautiful piece, “Trailer Trash” resonated as the classic that it is widely considered to be, ambivalent and vulnerable with an intoxicating melody that meandered and words that contemplated before Isaac bent the most mesmerizing series of chords from his strings, sweat pouring out of him and gleaming in the colored lights.
Take a deeper dive into Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West and the history of the band via this eye-opening doc from Pitchfork:
Brock was backed at 9:30 Club by guitarist Simon O’Connor, bassist Russell Higbee, and Damon Cox on the drums, and though he didn’t have the original lineup with him, it was impressive to see him precisely and emphatically spew or float the intriguing lyrics to 15 consecutive songs — more than 73 minutes’ worth of recorded music, and some of it not played all that often prior to this recent tour. As part of the anniversary, the album was released on a limited-edition vinyl picture disc, which was available at the merch table in DC and at other shows on this run.
With purpose and in workmanlike fashion, Isaac delivered to an audience that cheered with fists in the air after each of these tracks. Of course, Isaac — who as a teenager lived in DC, among other places — would share his own take on the anniversary tour, cracking that “no record is that good” to deserve such a lengthy and visible examination and suggesting that he thinks Modest Mouse put out more commendable offerings since.
Listen to the most recent studio album from Modest Mouse, 2021’s The Golden Casket:
While no songs were plucked from it during this show, the band in the summer of 2021 did release its seventh studio album, The Golden Casket. What was worthy of Brock’s inspection, it seemed, was the scene within an at-capacity 9:30 Club, and at one point he took a moment to simply pan the room, simply observing as attendees hollered and basked in the moment along with him, and more than once.
“I’m gonna do that again,” and he did it again, drinking it in.
And while Isaac might have downplayed The Lonesome Crowded West as part of his simple stage banter, and maybe rightfully so after 16 nights of a similar setlist before getting to DC, anyone who’s taken the time to carefully relisten to this important work knows that it clearly speaks to a band that was on its way to honing the explosive, clanging frequency that would eventually become an engine driving many of its compositions.
It was also an outstanding early demonstration by Brock, who was by all accounts well on his path then to becoming one of the most recognized and lasting voices in the realm of indie rock.
Ultimately, the set would include more than just the full album rundown: opportunistic fans who were part of the VIP offering were treated to an acoustic three-song set before regular ticketholders entered the building, and the show would ramp up with a robust four-song encore before closing with one of the band’s most staggering compositions, “Gravity Rides Everything,” from 2000’s The Moon & Antarctica.
Boasting a consuming catalogue of daunting, emotionally volatile songs that ricochet, advance, and rivet, Modest Mouse has had so much impact on indie rock while its own story might not be fully realized far and wide.
After adding an extra show to the current tour, Modest Mouse will swing back through the District tonight to close it out with what will be a third sold-out concert at 9:30 Club in a week’s time.
And as repetitive as it might at times feel to the band’s leader, an unconventional tour such as this one should go a long way in enduring Modest Mouse to its longtime fans and making new ones of those who simply hadn’t fully grasped the extent of the band’s accomplishments over the course of 30 years.
Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine
Heart Cooks Brain
Lounge (Closing Time)
Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
Out of Gas
Long Distance Drunk
Bankrupt on Selling
Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright
Whenever You Breathe Out, I Breathe In (Positive Negative)
A Life of Arctic Sounds
Gravity Rides Everything
Here are images of Modest Mouse along with opening act Mattress performing at 9:30 Club on Dec. 13, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.