Like its intended Lollapalooza tourmates the Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse has pulled off the rare trick of achieving a fair degree of commercial success on a major label without hiding its weirdnesses or, harder still, losing its indie credibility.
The people who attended Saturday's sold-out show at Avalon were as well versed in the band's back catalog as they were in its latest album, "Good News for People Who Love Bad News." That became clear when the opening "Paper Thin Walls" was followed immediately by "Float On." Playing the album's big single so early in the evening could have been a disastrous anticlimax, but it was received as simply one song to get excited about among many. There wasn't a song performed all evening that didn't cause some pocket of the audience to erupt into cheers within the first few notes.
Running through an 80-minute set, Modest Mouse explored some of the same sonically lush ground as the Flaming Lips but with a more aggressive rhythmic foundation. That was aided by the permanent presence of a second drummer/percussionist onstage, and there were times when the band swelled from five to seven performers, with auxiliary members adding violin, cello, vocals -- and still more percussion.
With the rest of the band deemphasized in low-contrast blue light, frontman Isaac Brock was clearly Modest Mouse's focal point. Standing off to the side of the stage, he barely interacted with the audience, limiting his few comments to times when the band entered or exited the stage. He generally looked at his guitar when his eyes weren't closed entirely, and the keyboard he played during the spacey and warm "The World at Large" pointed to the wings, not the audience.
Every now and then, though, something would sneak through, and Brock would infuse songs like "Interstate 8" with a wild-eyed scream as he took on the demeanor of a twitchy rock god. A number of songs progressed to fierce climaxes. "Cowboy Dan," in particular, was expanded from just over six minutes, as it is on 1997's "The Lonesome Crowded West," to more than 10, as he and Dann Gallucci attacked their guitars to create almost mathematical squalls of noise. Brock may not know how to talk to an audience, but Modest Mouse has reached a point where the music can speak for itself.
With French Toast and Wolf Parade
At: Avalon, Saturday night