On what turned out to be the last night before the rains and chill nights of fall came to stay in the Denver Metropolitan area, Modest Mouse and Future Islands brought an impressive display emotionally charged, melancholic pop. The great art punk band Empath opened the show but some of us ran into some of the gnarled traffic of rush hour, road construction and computerized misdirection getting into Red Rocks and had to miss their set.
It would be easy to be jaded about what might be called classic indie rock at this point but something about the music of both Modest Mouse and Future Islands have built into their songwriting an enduring quality borne of the music coming out of genuine, heartfelt emotions and not coming at that songwriting from a conventional direction. That bands this idiosyncratic and imbued with a gloriously raw sense of heightened feeling are able to draw a crowd of size speaks to the validity of music that clearly isn’t being honed or polished to be anything more than what it was in the beginning and from which it developed organically.
After having seen Future Islands at much smaller venues from the more intimate like the Denver DIY space Rhinoceropolis in 2008 and 2010 and Larimer Lounge in 2011 and small/medium sized rooms like The Bluebird Theater and the Gothic Theatre it was refreshing to see that the band was able to take its hushed and reflective yet expansive art pop and its delicate sensibilities to the big stage and translate songs of such deep personal meaning for such a large performance space. Of course frontman Sam Herring treated us to his acrobatic movements, dramatically acting out the powerful feelings coursing through him as he relives some of the experiences that inspired the lyrics and as melded with the dynamic and evocative music that gave those words such a resonant context. In one moment Herring went for it so hard, swept up in the moment that he fell down and joked about the last time he played Red Rocks he tore his ACL with the moral of the story being “Don’t try to impress Morrissey” as that’s for whom Future Islands opened in July 2015. The set consisted of some of the band’s most beloved songs including breakthrough hit “Seasons” as performed memorably on Late Night With David Letterman in 2014 as well as deep, older cuts like “Tin Man” and “Little Dreamer.” Songs from the band’s 2020 album As Long As Your Are, “Plastic Beach,” “Thrill,” and especially “For Sure” with its tonal nods to early Depeche Mode hit the perfect mood for the night and a strong reminder that Future Islands has from the beginning established an aesthetic that is equal parts nostalgia and immediacy, a mix that seems somehow to help with processing regret and the kinds of emotional trauma that don’t crash into your psyche so much as haunt the back of your mind.
Nearly 30 years into his career writing music with Modest Mouse, Isaac Brock might be excused for resting on his laurels some but if his recorded output and this performance are any indication that’s not exactly happening. The band is supposedly known for having bad live shows but having seen the group in 2000 for the Moon & Antarctica tour and in 2008 opening for REM at Red Rocks while Johnny Marr was in the band I’d say the only Modest Mouse gigs I’ve seen have been solidly emotionally stirring including this concert. I also read some reviews of the band’s latest album, 2021’s The Golden Casket, with criticism of how there’s too much going on in every song. Perhaps we heard different albums or someone missed how eclectic the band’s music has been since very early on making for a fascinating eclectic body of work that isn’t stuck in a stylistic rut yet possessed of a signature sound. Maybe this new record didn’t work for those more critical reviewers.
Seeing newer songs like “We Are Between,” “Wooden Soldiers,” “Fuck Your Acid Trip” and “Back to the Middle” alongside classic tracks like “Cowboy Dan,” “Bukowski,” “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” “Float On” and “Dark Center of the Universe” made it all seem like part of the band’s colorful and unique storytelling style with a broad palette of sounds that reconcile punk, synth pop, Americana, funk, Eastern European folk etc. into one of the distinct branches of indie rock that Modest Mouse helped to establish. That is to say a kind of music that makes it acceptable to write music that encourages you to take it on on its own terms without it needing to conform to something more familiar and established. The band’s multiple instruments were arrayed across the stage like a kind of orchestra in miniature so that its layers of sound could be brought to bear with ease and a precision that doesn’t seem there as the emotions are frayed around the edges in the vocals and expressive instrumentation. But seeing Modest Mouse in this incarnation made the intentionality of its sprawling and patchwork style obvious.
Later in the set proper Brock mentioned, with some amusement, how he was made aware of how his shouts of “Well” in “King Rat” had been made into a meme, providing a moment of humor in a set of music brimming with emotional intensity and insightful observations on personal psychology and society that have aged surprisingly well since the 90s. Perhaps this tapping into universal and long term human psychology explains some of Modest Mouse’s continued popularity but seeing the newer and older songs together in a touching demonstration of authentic feeling in musical performance it was also obvious that one of the classic bands of indie rock as we know it could evolve without losing sight of why it wrote music earlier in its career and why someone might connect with its songs.