Saturday, June 18, 2005

Modest Mouse

When Modest Mouse began recording a decade ago, the Washington-state trio was aligned with Olympia's lanky folk-punk rather than Seattle's muscle-bound grunge. While some lankiness was still evident Thursday night at Constitution Hall, Modest Mouse has significantly bulked up. The band's current touring version is basically a quintet, but there were as many as eight musicians onstage at times, appending percussion, keyboards, trumpet and bowed bass to the two-drummer, two-guitar lineup.

Singer-guitarist Isaac Brock joked that he now fronts "a miniature arena-rock band," yet there was nothing miniature about such tunes as "Bury Me With It," which came as close to Black Sabbath as anything Pearl Jam's ever done. Even when some of the guitars were acoustic -- or when Brock switched to banjo, indulging his new taste for Appalachian gloom -- the playing was often bludgeoning. The band's breakthrough hit, "Float On," had a sturdy enough refrain to rise above the clamor. But a lot of the band's arrangements were just too big for the modest songs.

The recently reconstituted Camper Van Beethoven, which opened, offered a similar blend of rusticity and heavy rock, with the added twist of violinist Jonathan Segal's Eastern European airs. The group played its best-known song, "Take the Skinheads Bowling," but more telling was a version of the Clash's "White Riot" that sounded like the Grateful Dead.

-- Mark Jenkins


The question at Thursday's performance at Wolf Trap's Filene Center was, what's it going to be? The three musicians making up the summer-long touring ensemble Trio! -- Bela Fleck, Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty -- are masters of their instruments but in decidedly different genres.

So was the show going to be fiery bluegrass from Fleck's five-string banjo? Jazz fusion from double-bassist Clarke? Rock-and-roll riffs from Ponty's fiddle?

As it happened, it was an impressive set of progressive jazz, with elegantly extended jams that drew from each musician's strengths. Clarke, seated at the center, held each piece together with the nimble playing he's known for. His gravity allowed Fleck and Ponty to chase melodies up and down their fret boards, exploring nuances and expanding the range of the pieces in thick layers of sonic overlap.

Ponty's tone found the border where fiddle begets violin on "South" and "Funky Ponty," an original composition named by Fleck and Clarke (Ponty's choice was "Legend of the Unicorn," but he was voted down, he said). Fleck wrote "Storm Warning" for the trio, and the piece conjured images of thunder and lightning in shifty time signatures.

Clarke's original offering was "Song to John," a tribute to John Coltrane that was appropriately somber as it was musically vibrant. There were several transcendent passages that were spellbinding in their passion and jaw-droppingly captivating in their performance. The same applies to the concert at large.

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