Should a band always play its biggest hit?

Modest Mouse put on a good show last night at Governor’s Ball. I’m not a huge fan of the band; I’ve got nothing against them, but I don’t own any of their albums. And though I recognized several of their songs when they played them, I couldn’t readily identify most of them as Modest Mouse songs until last night. They seemed worth seeing live based on what I knew of their catalog and reputation, but they were hardly the draw that got me to the all-day festival.

My wife, for what it’s worth, really likes the song “Float On,” the band’s most recognizable hit and only No. 1 single on any chart in its career thus far. Last night they did not play it, wrapping up instead with “Missed the Boat,” a very nice song.

But this isn’t really about Modest Mouse. That band is only a recent example used here to beg the question: Should a band always play its biggest hit at concerts?

On one hand, it hardly seems rock-and-roll to yield to the whims of the Billboard charts to indulge those in attendance not familiar with the bulk of your repertoire. Presumably the hardcore fans prefer the deeper cuts that they haven’t seen performed countless times on late-night talk shows by now, and a band should be loyal to those most loyal to it.

On the other, it does seem either self-conscious or ungracious to eschew a song, no matter how sick of it you are, if it’s the one that brought you mainstream success. The Flaming Lips, for example, have played “She Don’t Use Jelly” at every one of their concerts I’ve attended — at least once prefacing it with a note about how that song’s success provided the resources they needed to do all the awesomely strange projects and performances they’ve endeavored since.

So there’s the rub: Playing the song might amount to giving in to the masses when the most rock-band thing to do is say, “f— the masses, we’ll play what we want.” But if not for those masses’ appreciation of the song, you’re probably not playing for nearly as large a crowd.

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