Live Show Review: Modest Mouse and Future Islands at Red Rocks, 9/28/2021

Modest Mouse at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

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.

Future Islands at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

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.

Future Islands at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

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.

Modest Mouse at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

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.

Modest Mouse at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

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.

Modest Mouse at Red Rocks, 9/28/21, photo by Tom Murphy

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.

Best Shows in Denver and Beyond 05/10/18 – 05/16/18

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Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, photo by Tom Murphy

Thursday | May 10, 2018

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Abeasity Jones, photo by Tom Murphy

Who: Glasss Presents the Speakeasy Series Season 2: Venus Cruz & What Young Men Do, Abeasity Jones
When: Thursday, 05.10, 7 p.m.
Where: Hooked On Colfax
Why: Abeasity Jones’ songs sound like maybe he spends part of his day working in some high rise office in downtown Denver and/or in some media tech office nearby where maybe things are comfortable but there’s an element of compromise and alienation. And while working and tending to the demands of his personal and family life he allows his imagination an escape into chill spaces where he can explore and write stories about his struggles, concerns and daydream life. The beats are downtempo and ethereal and the subject matter often delivered with a sense of acceptance like depleted melancholy. Yet, Jones’ sense of humor and thoughtfulness lifts up the music and his live performance has a positive energy giving the songs a dimensionality that some hip-hop seemingly recorded at home lacks.

Also playing this show is one of Denver jazz and hip-hop’s true luminaries: Venus Cruz. But this time out with the band What Young Men Do. Cruz’s versatile talent has found a place singing, producing and performing music in a wide variety of contexts. Her long-running stint with the Jazz Odyssey program on KUVO on Wednesday nights is an outlet for fans of jazz and the sensibility of jazz outside the classic format. What Young Men Do is more of a funk, soul and jazz-inflected hip-hop project so it’ll be something pretty different for the Speakeasy Series and Hooked On Colfax both.

Who: Musical Mayhem: Bonnie Weimer and The Pollution
When: Thursday, 05.10, 9 p.m.
Where: Skylark Lounge
Why: Bonnie Weimer released her first single in probably several years, maybe even her first released music since her time in folk-punk-Americana group Potato Farmers, in April 2018 with “Pajama Top Man,” a winsome, humorous, self-effacing story song about an awkward would-be romantic encounter set to a spare, banjo melody. Fans of outsider music will find a lot to like about the song even though that designation doesn’t necessarily fit Weimer’s entire musical output. In an interesting pairing, not unusual for Claudia Woodman’s Musical Mayhem night at the Skylark, is The Pollution. Jay Fox was in one of the early DC punk bands, United Mutation, but the latter was never part of the Dischord scene and didn’t play out often even if its blend of psychedelic rock and punk was becoming a thing as bands like Butthole Surfers and Alice Donut were making waves in the underground. Decades hence, Fox, now living in Denver for several years, has set about trying to make bands for whom the intensity, energy, anti-authoritarian spirit and creative fire of punk and psychedelic seemed completely compatible qualities that needn’t be separated by stylistic sectarianism.

Who: Gold Trash, Violent Vickie, R A R E B Y R D $, Pearls and Perils and EVP
When: Thursday, 05.10, 8 p.m.
Where: Independent Records
Why: Glasss is bringing some of its artists to Colorado Springs tonight. Gold Trash is sort of a samples/live electronics take on the kind of collage, trash sound/culture guitar rock barrage that was Royal Trux. Pearls and Perils is lush downtempo beats and the sultry vocals of Olivia Perez who most won’t remember from her old, experimental rock band Gloam. But with Pearls and Perils she gets to put more of herself into the music undiluted by anyone else’s vision and the result is an emotionally cleansing body of work. Like most Glasss artists, EVP is impossible to tag with one genre designation. Part industrial, part pop, part punk, EVP sounds like the kind of music made by people living in a dystopian near future where kids have overtaken the crumbling, cheap housing units made during Denver’s current fake economic boom (real economic booms benefit everyone pretty equally) but then abandoned—scrappy, often angry and melancholy stuff. R A R E B Y R D $ is probably the Denver band now that will attain the underground mythical status of acts like Fissure Mystic and Hot White by the sheer excellence of its material and live shows except it’s an experimental hip-hop group. Its enveloping, rich beats stir the heart and the imagination and the emotional resonance of its lyrics and KoKo La’s and Key Lady’s singing and rapping has the irresistible power of a Kimya Dawson.

Friday | May 11, 2018

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Charly Bliss, photo by Jacqueline Harriet

Who: Punk Is Dad fundraiser featuring MF Ruckus, The Velveteers, Ned Garthe Explosion and Plastic Daggers
When: Friday, 05.11, 8 p.m.
Where: The Oriental Theater
Why: This show will benefit the Dorian DeLong Arts and Music scholarship fund which gives scholarships to college to students involved in arts programs in the Denver area. And you could hardly ask for a more solid rock lineup with the hard rock band MF Ruckus, psychedelic rock pranksters Ned Garthe Explosion, the edgy melodic hardcore Plastic Daggers and fuzz-garage stars The Velveteers.

Who: Esmé Patterson, Emily Ritz and Eleanor Perry
When: Friday, 05.11, 7 p.m.
Where: Leon Gallery
Why: Most of the time to see Esmé Patterson’s evocative storyteller pop you’d have to go to some kind of bigger bar venue or small theater. But this performance will happen at the much more intimate Leon Gallery. Patterson spent many years honing her craft as a member of the baroque pop group Paper Bird, but since she’s broke out on hr own for the last several years her imaginative songwriting has developed into a vehicle for writing with a warmth and wisdom on uncomfortable subjects.

Who: Charly Bliss w/Skating Polly
When: Friday, 05.11, 7 p.m.
Where: The Marquis Theater
Why: Charly Bliss’s 2017 album Guppy sounds like the band wood shedded its material in a cabin in a remote location far from its Brooklyn homebase with only 90s fuzzy alternative rock/power pop on hand for its listening diet. Obvious touchstones like Liz Phair, Velocity Girl, The Breeders and Veruca Salt. Even the music video for “Ruby” reinforces that impression looking like something that might have been produced for a segment of The Ben Stiller Show. But there’s no mistaking Charly Bliss’s exuberant energy for a pure nostalgia trip. The songs may rock but like many of the bands that likely influenced Charly Bliss, the lyrics have a raw vulnerability that gives it more depth than might otherwise be obvious. The same could be said for Oklahoma City band Skating Polly whose style of music is probably punk by default but so individual it would be problematic to say the trio consciously tried to be punk as a genre. The latter recently released its latest album, The Make It All Show. Skating Polly shows look like they might blow apart from the sheer, wiry energy of the performance and, of course, that’s what makes for great, scrappy punk rock.

Who: Girls Rock Denver: Showcase Series: Gold Trash, RAREBYRD$, EVP and Nighttimeschoolbus
When: Friday, 05.11, 7 – 11 p.m.
Where: Spectra Art Space
Why: Girls Rock Denver will happen in the summer but these events are a showcase to perhaps make being a musician beyond the camp and beyond those likely temporary bands an attainable goal. Which is crucial because a world where most music and art is still being made mostly by males seems bizarre and past its due date at this point in history. This night features some of the best artists in Denver in the realm of electronic, hip-hop, experimental and industrial music. Most of the artists on the bill were written up earlier in this column but all are worth your time.

Who: Slim Cessna’s Auto Club w/Echo Beds and Weathered Statues
When: Friday, 05.11, 8 p.m.
Where: Hi-Dive
Why: Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, one of Denver’s longest running bands and one of its most lively and entertaining, is doing a mini-residence at the Hi-Dive this weekend. Although the Auto Club is a kind of punk Americana with literary lyrics and a joyful, emotionally charged, theatrical live show, it’s been booking opening bands well outside the expected circles of Gothic Americana. This night, organo-industrial darkwave band Echo Beds will bring the punishing beats and cathartic drones and Weathered Statues will deliver its brand of moody but urgent post-punk.

Saturday | May 12, 2018

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Great American House Fire, photo by Tom Murphy

What: Fem Fest
When: Saturday, 05.12, 8 p.m.
Where: MCA Denver
Why: Fem Fest is an all-ages, all-genders welcome event that includes various workshops, a bazaar, tarot and astrology readings and more but also musical performances in the evening and night. Fem Fest because representation matters in a truly healthy and just society. There are plenty of, in essence, Men Fests because of booking and conception most of the rest of the year so don’t get caught up on the name and miss out on some of Denver’s best bands and the headliner, Red Aunts. Music kicks off at 5 p.m. with a Girls Rock Denver showcase followed by space angel/earth mother energy hip hop group R A R E B Y R D $ at 6. Princess Dewclaw, Denver’s own electro fuzz punks at 7 with “pastel punk” surf rock trio The Corner Girls at 8. The evening tops off at 9 with Red Aunts.

Who: Dirty Junk, Great American House Fire, Married a Dead Man
When: Saturday, 05.11, 9 p.m.
Where: The Curtis Club
Why: Dirty Junk is a duo from Minneapolis on its 2017 album Snot is the kind of messy, noisy, collage-esque punk-inspired music that we haven’t heard much of since Get Hustle was active. Or like a weirder and noiser version of that raw punk Sleater-Kinney was doing on its first two records. Interesting putting the band together with Great American House Fire, a group that combines a melancholic Americana with moody posthardcore and soulful singing. Married a Dead Man is a post-punk band unabashedly influenced by music out of the Goth world.

Who: Sorted #8: Pangaea, Ganesa & Squane, Newnumbertwo
When: Saturday, 05.12, 10 p.m.
Where: TBA
Why: Kevin McAuley calls London home but tonight he’s performing at the eight edition of sorted, the underground electronic music event that Veronica Lamaak and company put together periodically to showcase some of the most interesting house, techno and more experimental dance music in general happening now. Also on the bill are Jelly Bean Farm artists Ganesa & Squane. Ganesa is the label head of Jelly Bean Farm and her DJ sets tend to be eclectic and futuristic-sounding. Squane’s sound tends to be more low end heavy with thick, dubby bass beats but he and Ganesa share a seeming love of bright, mid-to-upper register melodically ethereal melodies. Newnumbertwo is a resident artist with Sorted whose deep house/dubstep sound mixes in elements of a gentle kind of breakcore.

Who: Slim Cessna’s Auto Club w/Palehorse/Palerider
When: Saturday, 05.11, 8 p.m.
Where: Hi-Dive
Why: The second night of the Auto Club residency at the Hi-Dive this weekend but this time with Palehorse/Palerider, a band who are superficially an alchemical mixture of doom/drone and shoegaze but with an industrial/tribal element they bring in for a song or two in the set. Which doesn’t mean much when your sets have three or four songs but nevertheless gives a set of otherwise densely beautiful and crushing songs an expansive sensibility.

Sunday | May 13, 2018

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Modest Mouse, photo by Ben Moon

Who: Modest Mouse w/Mimicking Birds
When: Sunday, 05.13, 6 p.m.
Where: Red Rocks
Why: For a band that is one of the definitive incarnations of the too-broad-too-vague-yet-fittingly-umbrella quasi-genre of indie rock, Modest Mouse sure put in a lot of time developing its sound and songwriting style before becoming one of the style’s most iconic groups. Modest Mouse began when its founders were still in high school, it released its first seven inch on K Records, its first two full-lengths on Seattle indie imprint Up Records including its 1997 “breakthrough” album Lonesome Crowded West and every album since through major label Epic Records. Quite an arc for a band whose work remained fairly idiosyncratic, emotionally raw and imaginative even up to its most recent album, 2015’s Strangers to Ourselves. In its first decade or so of its existence, Modest Mouse was a notoriously inconsistent live band. But since then the act has seemingly harnessed the chaos and unpredictability of its youth when maybe there seemed to be less and stake and less to lose if it did all fall apart and channeled that spirit into music more coherent and accessible to a wider audience without having to sacrifice its uniqueness.

Monday | May 14, 2018

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Rotstrotter, photo by Tom Murphy

Who: Petrification w/Rotstrotter, Alone and Noctambulist
When: Monday, 05.14, 8 p.m.
Where: Hi-Dive
Why: Petrification is a death metal/grind band from Portland, Oregon on its way to Maryland Death Fest and making a stop in Denver to play with some of the local heavy hitters in that realm of music. The band called its 2017 cassette Summon Horrendous Destruction with a rotting zombie face rendered in black and white as the cover. At times the guitar riffs wander into the realm of The New Order-esque period Testament. But that is no bad thing. Rotstrotter have been one the longest-running, and frankly best, D-Beat bands in Denver. Sounding somewhere between SSD and early Discharge, Rotstrotter looks and sounds like they live it and that it’s not a simply a shallow lifestyle choice.

Who: Farrell Lowe Group, Latex Cupcake, Seward / Sexton, Gil Selinger
When: Monday, 05.14, 8 p.m.
Where: Seventh Circle Music Collective
Why: This is a rare opportunity to see some of Colorado’s avant-garde improvisation legends at a DIY space. Farrell Lowe Group includes, of course, Farrell Lowe, Mark Raynes, Dave Willey and Mark Harris. The latter two are members of internationally renowned avant-prog band Thinking Plague. Latex Cupcake is Jennifer Bobola, John T. Nething, Bret Kuyper and Mark Emmons, all of whom have been around Denver playing in various capacities but this is the project’s first show and its, one might say, mutant version of experimental jazz/modern classical will be a great fit on this lineup including a solo cello performance with Gil Selinger and Seward / Sexton, which will be accessible and in the vein of lounge jazz but inspired more by Captain Beefheart and The Fugs than a standard jazz group.

Tuesday | May 15, 2018

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Cullen Omori, photo by Alexa Lopez

Who: Cullen Omori w/The Gloomies and Rowboat
When: Tuesday, 05.15, 8 p.m.
Where: Lost Lake
Why: Cullen Omori’s 2016 album New Misery at least lets you know what you’re in for. As in imagine you were in one of the most buzzed about indie rock bands of the first half of the 2010s and then your band breaks up and you didn’t regroup with any of the other members. You’re left to pick up the pieces and try to figure out a way to keep doing the only thing that gave your life any real resonance. Perhaps a bit of a stretch but one can only imagine it’s something like the scene in Apocalypse Now where Willard discusses why he stayed in Vietnam and how it beat working in a factory in Ohio. To go from Smith Westerns and, in Denver anyway, playing the Ogden to playing small clubs. Willard dealt with it through self-harm and self-medication. Maybe Omori did some of that too, who’s to say? But what we do know is that despite its flaws and shortcomings, New Misery is the product of Omori’s tangling with the fallout, personal and creative, of going from being in a band on the verge of mainstream success to having to find a place for oneself doing the thing you love but which is also the source of some of your pain. That quality gives the record a bit of an uneven and at times cringeworthily honest quality but you don’t often get to hear that on what is essentially a pop record. For this show, you can see some of that music live but also, with any luck, a good deal of what Omori has been cooking up since then.

Who: Film On the Rocks: The Last Jedi feat. Church Fire
When: Tuesday, 05.15, 6 p.m.
Where: Lost Lake
Why: Church Fire’s music sounds like it’s from some future, way-past-post-apocalypse-to-civilizational-rebirth dance club scene. Like synth pop delivered with a fiery intensity and noisy abandon. Sure, a lot of people are going to see a movie during the rainy season for some reason at a place where the wind will doppler the sound and the storms will make watching a movie borderline miserable. Or not. It is Colorado after all. But seeing Church Fire in that environment will make sense as the sun is setting and the diminishing rainclouds provide the perfect backdrop.

Wednesday | May 16, 2018

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TV Girl log, image courtesy TV Girl

Who: TV Girl w/Wished Bone and Hairclub
When: Wednesday, 05.16, 8 p.m.
Where: Hi-Dive
Why: The enigmatic pop band TV Girl makes a stop at the Hi-Dive this night. Its sound is like a hyper/surreal, tropicalia-inflected lounge pop. Like a Los Angeles sister band to Sweden’s Death And Vanilla. If someone could make music for a TV show about an America where the 80s never ended and we somehow had Ike back as the president. If Mad Men was a cyberpunk show but took place at a resort with none of the usual dystopian trappings, just life with everyday dramas set in a dreamlike place, an almost too clean place as exists in 60s 70s British science fiction shows. The band’s new album, Death of a Party Girl (read the statement on why the vinyl isn’t yet out because it’s dead on and witty) is an indie pop album that sounds like something that could only really come out of Southern California – hazy atmospheres, downtempo, wistful and soothing – but without any of the creeping insipidity that happens when too much industry input leeches music of any of its inherent character.