It was hard to predict what kind of concert Modest Mouse would put on at the Cross Insurance Arena on Tuesday, or even what kind of fans might be there to witness is.

The Washington band has gone through a number of distinct phases, beginning as a cult band known for its ironic outlook and forays in expansive mid-tempo percussion and wiry minor-key guitar licks. In 2004, the band made an unlikely crossover into radio with “Float On,” a pop song that married vaguely Buddhist philosophy and an irresistible bouncy backbeat. Around this time, their songs took on a frantic pace and drama so heightened that they even briefly joined ranks with the Smiths’ Johnny Marr. Their rhythms became more playful and more urgent, with frontman Isaac Brock yelping amid the chaos like a ringmaster in a madcap circus.

The band occupies a space in between indie and mainstream, and from a distance they seem to have changed enough to turn away their older, loyal fan base while not doing enough to court the younger generation. Yet, after charting at No. 3 with their latest album “Stranger to Ourselves,” they were bold enough to book the biggest room in Portland. The room was not full, but there were a lot of people there, representing fans of all ages. What did they all have in common? Beards and flannel, mostly.

In concert, the phases of the band’s life bleed together, revealing similarities that don’t come across on record. The band heavily changes up its set list from night to night, and Portland got a career-spanning set that leaned heavy on the last few albums, if for no other reason than that the bold pace of those songs fit the size of the room better. The band was large and well-rehearsed, even cycling through instruments such as violins, banjos and horns to better bend the songs into form.

Brock devoted himself wholeheartedly to his performance, tenderly singing a ballad, such as “Blame It On the Tetons,” and shouting like a carnival barker on the next song, while playing his guitar as if it may slip out of his hand at any second. His wry sense of humor also shined through. At one point, he finally told a persistent heckler to shut up, and then played “Bukowski,” a ramshackle, Tom Waits-like number that contains the chorus, “God, who’d want to be such an (expletive).”

One thing that was striking was how weird it all was for a concert of this size. Modest Mouse songs seem to be composed without a firm skeleton, just meat and flesh flopping and jerking its way into some kind of structure. Background vocals chirped and chanted like the Munchkins in “Wizard of Oz,” verses built up like Jenga towers, while guitar solos stumbled and lurched in different directions. Modest Mouse is undoubtedly one of the strangest bands to achieve widespread success in the 21st century. The proof was in feeling the floor shake to “Float On” or watching a sea of people crowd surf to the punch-drunk funeral march “The Devil’s Workday.”

Robert Ker is a freelance music writer in Portland, where he and his wife own the vintage store Find. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @bobbker