Photo by Jeremy Zimmerman |

Off the beaten path for most, Bethlehem is a city that often seems to be living in the shadow of its industrial heritage. Reclaiming the post-industrial wasteland has been a task of herculean proportions, but the city is making the blight beautiful by converting it into art spaces and public amenities. In an interesting parallel, seminal indie rockers Modest Mouse played there for the second time in a row, escaping the shadow of their own post-grunge heritage — and proved that being flexible and willing to change allows them to draw diverse crowds more than 20 years after their founding.

After an appropriately strange set from Gene Ween, the stage in the literal shadow of the former Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces was prepped and ready for hot fire of the musical variety. Isaac Brock and co — the band varying between six and nine persons throughout the night — appeared and set to work, crushing through a massive, career-spanning set.

You’d think now that the band is — finally — touring behind their sixth LP Strangers to Ourselves, would mean a heavy emphasis on numbers from that record. But no, everything in moderation. Seeing a Modest Mouse setlist play out is like a game of Russian Roulette — there’s truly no way to know the full extent of what happens until it’s over. Are they going to play your favorite song? Who knows. Will they play that one famous song? Err, maybe not, as we found out the last time they played in Bethlehem. Unlike that time, however, they did indeed play feel good jam “Float On” — or at least most of it. Brock cut off the song after the bridge to tell a long story about how the fake Jamaican who scammed him (inspiring the song) had been caught, or so he heard. Going to finish the song, Brock said “Anyways, that was 75% of Float On. Here’s the rest. Eh, nevermind.”

The rest of the setlist was appropriately varied, with some notably obscure picks shuffled in. I was pleased as punch to hear them toss in the punchy Ugly Cassanova (Brock’s other band) track “Here’s to Now.” Between poppy hits like “Float On” and “The World at Large,” they even managed to throw in B-side “Night on the Sun.”

Aside from general weirdness, Brock seemed to be in an exceptionally good mood — after seeing them before and watching a number of streamed festival sets, I was prepared to potentially not even hear the cryptic frontman say a word. It’s happened before. Which made it especially weird that he was quite chatty, building a rapport with the front row of the packed crowd. After eight years of sporadic touring and working on Strangers, it’s good to see Modest Mouse — and Brock — out and in fine form.

We’ll see them again — and a bit closer to home, too — when they hit Philadelphia as a big act on the 2015 Made in America bill, this Labor Day weekend.

The Tortoise and the Tourist
Paper Thin Walls
Lampshades on Fire
Out of Gas
This Devil’s Workday
Here’s to Now (Ugly Casanova song)
The Best Room
Doin’ the Cockroach
The World at Large
Night on the Sun
Float On
The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box
Black Cadillacs
Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright (Styrofoam Boots part only)
Tiny Cities Made of Ashes

Gravity Rides Everything
Pups to Dust
A Different City
The Good Times Are Killing Me