Pied Piper of Issaquah
Issac Brock and Modest Mouse survive the heat for an inspiring opening night at the Senator
There’s no way to get around talking about it. Chico was blisteringly hot last Friday. Well into the night it was muggy and the air was thick. Take that climate, bottle it up in a giant old building that has no air conditioning, add 1,000 sweating rock fans, and you have some idea of the scene inside the Senator Theatre for the sold-out Modest Mouse show.
This was the maiden voyage of the J-Max Productions/Senator Theatre live music partnership at the increasingly refurbished theater. The new sparkly red and white marquee was in place, the painted-over windows near the lobby’s ceiling were scrubbed clean and, most impressive, the huge balcony previously walled off for two of the old United Artist movie screens was re-exposed, restoring the natural, open contours of the grand room.
Did I mention the heat? No amount of open space was going to help, but it didn’t really matter. The Walkmen opened to a couple hundred folks packed up front, and lead Walkman Hamilton Leithauser even wore a coat as the band played its unique, variable mid-to-quick-tempoed mood music (somewhat reminiscent of The Call, or even really old U2). Leithauser crooned his stretched-out, fuzzed-out melodies, puncturing the speakers with impressive shrieking, and keeping the audience in place leading up to the Mouse.
The band members shuffled onto the wide stage to a huge swell of screams and, once settled in their spots, front man Isaac Brock opened the set with the jangly guitar intro of “Paper Thin Walls” off 2000’s Moon and Antarctica.
I immediately felt embarrassed.
A couple years before Moon and Antarctica came out I was lingering around a Seattle club after a Modest Mouse show, loudly sharing a beer-fueled anecdote of some crazy Brock story I’d heard second hand with a couple of friends. Just as I finished my tall tale, Brock appeared from behind the “paper thin” curtain door of the club’s bathroom. He must have heard my slobbering, and tonight’s opener, with its lyrics: “These walls are paper thin. … Everyone’s a voyeurist, they’re watching me/ Watch them, watch me right now,” has made me feel about an inch tall since I first listened to that album. I never really thought the song was about my buffoonery, but them coming to Chico and playing that old song first? Ugh!
Despite their cool Pacific Northwest roots (Seattle, Issaquah, Portland) the band members seemed undaunted by the extremely warm conditions. It was impossible not to get over myself almost immediately, as half the audience crowded the stage bouncing in unison for a sweltering set (plus four-song encore) of revolution rock, culled from the whole of the band’s 10-year tenure.
The crowd was ready to follow too, especially three songs in, when the MTV-hit “Float On,” from the new Good News For People Who Love Bad News pecked out its initial reverb-heavy guitar melody, then launched headlong into that great marching rhythm that made you want to follow the band into the streets. The whole theater sang along to the anthem strains, “And we’ll all float on all right/ Already we’ll all float on,” condescending to glide (as Rilke would say) along optimistically together.
Many of the songs toyed with variations of that same marching rhythm, as did Brock, utilizing stops and breaks to pump his fist to the beat, with the most raucous example being Good News‘ “Black Cadillac.” Quiet piano parts ("We named our children after towns that we’ve been to") gave way to loud, chugging sing-a-alongs piggy-backing the beat with “done, done, done with all the fuck, fuck, fuckin’ around.”
Other highlights included two from ‘97’s The Lonesome Crowded West: Brock plucked banjo on “Cowboy Dan,” building up to a craziness that pared back down to the airy refrain of “you know we need oxygen to breathe/ oxygen to breathe;” and the punk-rock dance number, “Doin’ the Cockroach” unhinged the joint as stage bouncers frantically tried to keep the dancers cool with sporadic bottled-water showers.
For having such a crush on opening weekend (the following night’s String Cheese Incident show sold out as well), the Senator’s Damon Fadale and J-Max’s Justin Maximov deserve a hearty back slap for a very difficult job well done.