June 14, 2022
Photos by Tyler King
Modern English is a band that I had been wanting to see for years now. I was set to see them in 2017, but the band had to cancel the day of the show due to their guitarist falling ill. So here I was at The Chapel in San Francisco to see them not only for the first time, but to also see them perform their 1982 album After The Snow in its entirety.
Scheduled opener Creux Lies had to cancel last-minute due to multiple members contracting COVID-19, so Modern English didn’t take the stage until just past 9:30 to a thunderous wave of applause. Immediately apparent was that their guitarist, Gary McDowell, was not to be performing at the show; instead, frequent collaborator Daniel Jakubovic was filling in. The rest of the band, though, were the members that we all know and love: Robbie Grey on vocals, Stephen Walker on keyboards, and Michael Conroy on bass (I admittedly don’t know the name of their touring drummer). Daniel and Stephen began making a cacophonous wall of noise on their given instruments before, out of the chaos, came the driving drums and bass of the song “16 Days,” the opening song on their debut album Mesh & Lace.
The set was very clearly divided into five distinct parts. The first part was a one-two punch of early songs, with “16 Days” being directly followed by early single “Gathering Dust.” The early sound of Modern English is dense, rhythmic, angular post-punk, with the drums and bass being the driving force of most of their songs, the guitar and keyboards there more to add texture and noise over the rhythmic instruments. And damn, seeing these two songs being played was like getting a chair knocked over your head. The band had a power and force that completely overshadowed the recorded versions of these songs, and I was enthralled during the opening two songs.
The second part of the set was the advertised draw of the show for most long-time fans: the playing of the album After The Snow in its entirety. Despite the recorded album being shy of forty minutes, the live performances of these songs seemed to occasionally stretch into twice their normal length, with “Life In The Gladhouse” in particular being stretched into a juggernaut, frenzied version. Before the songs “Face Of Wood” and “Carry Me Down,” Robbie Grey made sure to let the audience know that those were two songs that the band doesn’t normally perform, although you could have fooled me. Every song was played with just the right amount of both precision and chaos, “Carry Me Down” being performed with a sense of power that I would never have associated with the song.
The third part of the set was a two-song section of selections from their most recent studio album, 2016’s Take Me To The Trees. The two songs in question, “Moonbeam” and “Trees,” certainly lacked the intensity of the songs that had been performed prior, but I think that it was needed as a sort of come-down following what the audience had just witnessed. Robbie stepped to the microphone between the two songs and stated, “Our guitarist, Gary, isn’t here. He’s very sick. So please, keep him in your thoughts. This next song is for him.” It was a touching tribute, and I sincerely hope that Gary is able to overcome whatever it is that he’s currently fighting.
The fourth part of the set was what Robbie described as “two pop songs.” The first was “Hands Across The Sea,” the lone song performed from their third album, Ricochet Days, which saw Robbie pick up an acoustic guitar. The second was the one song that the band had skipped over during their playthrough of After The Snow. It’s an obscure song called “I Melt With You.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. Personally, the song to me has always been good (not great), and while I understand that it’s the big song in their catalogue, I feel that the band could have skipped over it entirely and the performance would have been just as powerful. Following the performance of their biggest song, the band left the stage for the shortest encore break that I have ever seen; they were back out in less than a minute.
The fifth part of the set was a sort of bookend, with the band playing another early single (“Swans On Glass”) and a song from their first album (“Black Houses”). This was the perfect way to end the show, with the intensity level back up to the highs of earlier in the show, the band creating rhythmic chaos throughout the full 10 minutes of the encore. It left the crowd, who by that point had been worked into a frenzy, needing more. But no. Robbie said “Thank you” to the crowd, the band exited stage right, and the house lights turned on. And trust me, I will be back for more next time.