Pickle Juice & Melodrama: A Modest Mouse Concert

emilytreadgold #5

It all started normally enough. With Honey-Nut Cheerios and Chipotle respectively inhaled, the usual kerfuffle of parking sorted out, and the journey to Comerica Theatre in downtown Phoenix accomplished, the roommate and I took some time to enjoy the scenery out front of the venue. Watching a guy yelling about selling tickets right next to a guy who was carrying on about needing tickets was one point of interest, and trying to guess which concert-goer went with what band was another. (This hipster couple is younger, well-manicured, and sharply dressed, they must be Brand New-ites. This dude’s rocking a plaid shirt and flip flops, looks like he works at a brewery, and has a beard worthy of Portland. Clearly a Modest Mouser). The sold-out show featured bands of two very different style and culture, and the fan dichotomy was really something to behold.

Once inside, we got down to business by doing battle with the impressive merch line. While doing some hasty optimization equations in my head to determine how much damage I could do and still afford to fuel both myself and my car for the coming week, my counterpart begins to repeatedly exclaim “Are those my boys playing?” “No way,” I respond with near-certainty, “it’s not even 8 yet.” According to everything I had read online in preparation, the show was set to start at 8, with Brand New performing first. The bands were co-headlining, an unusual scenario that involved the bands taking turns opening and closing the show each night. Having minimal knowledge of Brand New, I couldn’t tell what sounds my earholes were taking in. But she was convinced, so she darted off to check while I stayed in line. Returning minutes later sweaty and out of breath, she maniacally pants “IT IS MY BOYS! They-started-at-7:30-you-need-a-wristband-to-get-into-the-pit-I-don’t-want-a-shirt, all of those things.” Since I was now at the front of the merch line, I said “Go!” “But how will you find me in the pit?” “I’ll find you.” She departs.

Minutes later, shirts and poster in hand, I get wrist-banded and head down the shadowy tunnel to the pit. Several things occur to me as I enter the throng of people at the base of the stage: it’s quite dark, she likely entered the pit on the opposite side of the stage, and I am never finding her. This doesn’t stop me from scanning the crowd for her Roman-candle ginger head whenever the lights flare up. Eventually, though, I acquiesce into the music. I felt most unworthy standing there silently as Brand New performed their emotionally charged catalog, of which my knowledge is scant at best, with the entire crowd singing along flawlessly at several points in transcendental beauty made more poignant by the fact that this is one of the band’s final performances. The announcement earlier this month that this would be their second to last tour turned the flowers decorating the stage into a funereal affair and the raw, rasping vocals a powerful swan song. Needless to say, I felt like an imposter intruding on a bittersweet intimate moment between a band and its shockingly devoted followers.

Following a few final songs and an adorably heartfelt speech in which the front man (whose name I ashamedly do not even know) expressed extreme gratitude to Modest Mouse for having them on tour, gushing “we all know they are a great band but they are also great people,” and thanked them for sharing their ping pong table, Brand New bid us all adieu. There was no time to bask in the glow of the moment, though – I had a mission to complete. The lights came on, the masses began shifting, and I resumed trying to locate my erstwhile companion 90’s style as her phone was dead. (90s style, if you’ve forgotten, involves a lot of Meerkat-ing, neck craning, and applied theory of mind to predict the behavior of your equally lost friend in a crowd). We made quick work of the task, and were soon reunited stage right.

And thus we began vying for position in preparation for the second act of the night: the mighty Modest Mouse. As roadies remove the flowers and begin parading a ragtag assortment of instruments onto the stage (“Is that a violin?” “I don’t even know what that is…” “Why do they need so many cellos?” “Oh, there’s the banjo!”) more mental optimization equations were derived: how badly do I have to pee? If I don’t drink any water until the end, will I actually die? Where is the best place to stand that doesn’t impose on the people who are already here? As it turned out, most people answered those questions differently and bee-lined to the concessions area immediately following Brand New, leaving a ton of empty space in the pit and allowing us to stroll pretty much right up to the rail – a phenomenon nearly unheard of. But what appears too-good-to-be-true so often is, and we soon made the grisly discovery that concert-goers have evolved a far more sinister strategy that allows them to have their cake and eat it too.

I’m not sure if it’s the modern youth or the “festival mindset” that is responsible, but standing room only concerts are kind of a shitshow these days. Almost immediately, a girl to my right with cool, clammy skin oddly reminiscent of a toad began body-checking me. While the disco pumping through the house was surely fantastic, there was no live band playing as-of-yet and her level of enthusiasm was off-putting. The environment became increasingly more hostile as a girl in front of us tried to pull her friend forward as if no one would notice and was vehemently denied access. The girls both became sullen at this, peppering the surrounding area with their passive aggressive murmurs. A self-entitled fever-pitch was reached when one of the tallest motherfuckers I have ever seen materializes behind us and tries to squeeze through us to his bros in front.

My roommate (did I mention she has red hair?) put an immediate stop to that by demanding “what do you think you’re doing?” to which he defensively retorted “I was here! I just left to get water!” as if this is perfectly rational and justifies everything. She implores “Well, where are you going to stand?” and he mumbles a simian response and points to his former spot. Turning to fully face him, she takes in his physique and exclaims “you’re like the tallest guy in the world!” adding incredulously “And you want to stand directly in front of me!?” So ensues a brief but passionate refresher-course on the concert code of ethics, namely, the “you leave your spot, it’s gone forever” clause concerning general admission seating.

Unfortunately, this did nothing to circumvent the rumpus that was destined to occur. Snide, bitter comments were added to the passive aggressive chorus building around us as The BFG (really just the BG at this point) apparently could not abide watching the concert “alone,” isolated by the 3 feet of empty space above our unobtrusive heads. In plain sight, the lonely bro in front of me begins typing out a text message to The BG, who is right behind us. It reads “I guess it’s true, gingers really have no souls.” To which The BG types back “Don’t worry, we can move them out of the way.” Now enraged, my roommate taps him on the shoulder and demands “you’re going to try and move us?” And then the scene becomes a music-less punk rock circle for a hot second as The BG moves in and she simultaneously shoves his bro hard enough to make him stumble.

The two dudes in front, while grumbly, avert their eyes and are cowed into submission while The BG exclaims “I wasn’t gonna shove you!” The air crackles with hostility as the stand-off continues. The word “bitch” is bandied around, but everyone has the good sense not to move. Instead, they employ another tactic. The bro in front of my roommate begins slowly pushing back against her while texting, sneakily creating a bubble of space in front of him presumably to admit The BG when everyone least expects it. My roommate counterstrikes. “You’re leaning back a little bit, there. Ya fallin’ asleep?” No response. “We can be nuts to butts, I don’t mind.” She says while humping him from behind. Still no response.

For awhile, there is peace in the stalemate and I have time to observe a guy actually sleeping standing up nearby and overhear a lively recounting of a metal concert so “sick” spleens were lacerated, teeth were shoved back up into skulls, and eye sockets were pulverized. I am struck by the inexplicable smell of pickle juice that mysteriously pervades the area. Then things flare up again when the shoving-victim bro mutters to the humping-victim bro “she called me fat.” My roommate snaps to attention. “What’s that?” “You’re an asshole.” “Well, yes, but I would never call anyone fat. I lost 93 pounds, I know what that feels like. Besides, you’re about 18% body fat anyway.” Around this time, a fourth bro arrives on the scene, fresh from front-of-house and oblivious to the brouhaha.

The BG fills him in on his version of events, pining like the witch in Wicked. This bro is a little more diplomatic and after listening, taps my roommate on the shoulder and politely, if underhandedly as fuck, inquires “Hey, do you mind if I move in front of you so I can watch the show with my husband up there?” She gestures to the bro in front of her and says “Who, him? He’s been rubbing himself all over me all night so he’s my husband now. Sorry.” This prompts a renewed series of mutterings and I catch the ominous phrase “…well, I tried asking nicely…” and brace myself for a throw down when, suddenly, just as quickly as it all began, it is over. I am shoved in front of all the bros during a hostage exchange finding myself almost on the rail, the diplomatic bro moves in front of my roommate to be with his “husband” per the deal they’ve worked out, and The BG and my roommate take the back together.

Shortly thereafter, the show starts and everything fades away as the lights dim and the deafening sound of bees buzzes throughout the theater. The ghostly figures of the band can be seen taking the stage, and then everything lights up as Modest Mouse grooves into the delicious blitzkrieg that is “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.” After stridently inquiring if “anybody knows a way to get away” for several sonically-loaded minutes, Isaac, wearing a colorful southwest-themed shirt, takes the band right into “The Tortoise and the Tourist” off the latest album. From there, it’s a delectable smorgasbord of classic selections from past and present, including some choice B-Sides like “King Rat” and “Night on the Sun.” I am one of two people ecstatic to hear them perform “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami FL, 1996),” a lyrically and musically eccentric jam that tells the story of what would have [maybe] happened if the famous murderer had hung out in Florida in the 90s, that Isaac struggled to get produced and included on the last release due to its avant-garde styling.

He made quite a theatrical presentation of this number, putting on a snazzy jacket and using a special distorting microphone for the atypical vocals. Later on in the set, the usual drunken bellows of “COWBOY DAN!” that have become a staple at Modest Mouse shows, pierce the air, causing Isaac to tease the crowd for most of the show before professing that he’s being sadistic and conceding “so I guess it’s best if I just end this now by actually playing it…but then again maybe not…we could also play this other song we’re really excited to play…” When he finally does play it, a brawl starts in the pit and several dudes are escorted out by bouncers.

In addition to the bonus crowd entertainment and great music provided, there was also a plethora of new between-song “Isaac Brockisms” that true fans have come to look forward to, with the highlights being: a retelling of the famous Phoenix lights story in which Isaac was trapped on an airplane in a holding pattern for hours while heading into town to mix the seminal Modest Mouse album The Lonesome Crowded West, a mostly unintelligible rant concerning “wrong-turns” and “baby ducks,” a thrown microphone feed-backing endlessly from its concealed location, an ad-libbed ditty calling a guy in the audience out for being a “drunk douchebag,” starting the same song three times until it feels right while his band waits patiently, the tender improvised “Good dogs.” at the end of “Wild Pack of Family Dogs,” and the sage advice that concluded the main set: “if you drank beer tonight and also drove here, don’t drive drunk.”

Needless to say, our favorite crowd mates most likely noticed none of these intimate morsels and most assuredly took none of his advice. After repeatedly offering his water to the girl in front of me with an uncomfortable insistence that screamed roofies and foul play, the humped-bro lights up a doobie mere inches from a bouncer. Predictably, the bouncer snaps on a Maglite, illuminates the situation, and tells the bro if it happens again he’s gone. A kid who looks all of 12 turns around and provides the comforting knowledge that he’ll be doing 5 years tops if he’s caught so “it’s all good.” Diplomatic Bro, who happens to be right next to me, has his own stash and has managed to get himself “high as fuck” as the kids say. He stares at the stage perplexed for half the set, then turns to me and asks “Hey, who’s that girl up there?!” I say “Oh, that’s Lisa Molinaro. She’s a multi-instrumentalist from the band Talkdemonic and is also Isaac’s girlfriend.” He appears satisfied with this answer, then apologizes to all in the vicinity for his “crazy dancing.” He has stood stoic and stationary since his arrival.

As the crowd clamors for an encore, the lights dim and the sound of field insects stridulating fills the air. I hear confused snippets from the crowd asking “what is that?” “is that bugs?” Stoned Bro is terrified of the darkness and an organ chord someone played while testing the keyboards between sets. Slowly, the thunder of a distant storm can be heard alongside the insects. As the storm gets closer, raindrops being to patter. Right as it achieves full downpour, the band reclaims the stage with the mellow, soothing “The World At Large” followed by the up-tempo “Sugar Boats” to close out the night with a grand total of nineteen songs, none of which is “Float On” – a subtle act of rebellion that for some reason always makes me love this band more. The night ends quite literally with a bang as the lights come on, the sweaty bodies begin filing out the exits revealing the wasteland of garbage on the floor, and the roadies start breaking down the stage.

I guess it was a pretty darn good show. Yeah, I guess it was alright.