“Hang in there,” Modern English frontman Robbie Grey says kindly, humoring a screaming fan — the one who’s shouting for the band to play their big hit just minutes into their set, the one who’s somehow at every show for every band who’s ever had a big hit. Though, few bands can claim a big hit quite as big and with as much staying power as Modern English’s “I Melt With You.”
Grey, wearing a white T-shirt, rolled up blue jeans and black Converses, was surprisingly cool about the exchange. It’s likely one he’s had often over a career that’s lasted longer than many of his fans have been alive here on the Barracuda Patio this brisk SXSW Music Tuesday night. And when the band does finally close their set with that big hit, Grey and the band show no signs of disdain for or fatigue with the song. Introduced jokingly with, “OK, we’re going to play that song,” “I Melt With You” was effervescent and energetic, and even if one hadn’t heard it a million times before and didn’t associate it with warm waves of nostalgia from flowery feel-good love movie montages and awkward school dances, it’s one that would immediately grab your ear and cause you to look up from your beer.
But “I Melt With You,” for all it does right as a supreme piece of pop music, isn’t really indicative of the rest of Modern English’s woefully overlooked catalog. Or so I was told…
Like many, I had no familiarity with the band beyond their massive hit. (Hold one moment, angry mob of Modern English diehards! Don’t sharpen your pitchforks and start drafting your outraged internet comments just yet.) I am of the belief that any rock band could be slightly improved by being a British rock band. And my first and fondest South by Southwest memories are of U.K. bands cut and copied from that new-wave cloth worn by Modern English and their ’80s post-punk ilk, so having an excuse to venture closer to the source of a sound that’s been so thoroughly tapped by bands ever since seemed a fine way to spend a Tuesday night.
What would this eager but clueless Anglophilic ignoramus take away from Modern English? Turns out I need to add some old Modern English records to my listening queue.
Set opener “16 Days” was brooding bass and sheets of static, droning and danceable. Next up was “Swans of Glass,” equal parts bleak and bouncy. Four or five newer songs that followed didn’t feel as urgent and stood out from the old stuff of the set’s opening, even to this listener who had no familiarity with either. On these newer songs, Grey occasionally referred to lyrics on a sheet of paper, which he endearingly British-ly referred to as “parchment.” Throughout it all, the five-piece still sounded great — even on the songs that were somewhat less than world-melting.
Modern English play again today at 3 p.m. at Waterloo Records and Friday at 6:15 p.m. on the Whole Foods rooftop plaza. Both shows are free and all ages; the Whole Foods show may require RSVP.