Yesterday I took a break from playing music to go with Mel and watch some music: Midlake at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, supported by Horse Thief and Charlie Bowdery.
Bowdery was on first and, while impressive for a performer and writer of his age (he’s 15), he did not strike me as being ready for national exposure of the kind he must be getting, and one wonders whether his needs (as an artist or a young man) are really being best served by his being asked to play in front of large, uninterested, basically empty rooms. Would he not be better advised to work as hard as he can on his writing for the next two or three years while playing in smaller, intimate venue, and come back to the big stage when he’s learned his craft a little bit? If he were ready as a writer, maybe it’d be fine to throw him in there. But as it is, best of luck to him.
Oklahoma’s Horse Thief were the main support act. A psychedelic folk band (my goodness, there’s a lot of those around now) formed in Midlake’s home town of Denton, Texas, but currently based in Oklahoma City, Horse Thief are, like Midlake, signed to Bella Union. Again, the surprise…
They clearly had a few fans in the crowd last night, but Mel and I were not among them. They have a sound worked out, for sure, but song after song passed without a single snippet of melody you could take away with you afterwards. While they would no doubt offer as a counter to this that their music is about feel, offering them platforms on which they can get on with the business of just being Horse Thief, none of them are interesting enough players to justify distending the songs and jamming on them. The singer’s voice too, is an acquired taste. Close your eyes and you could be listening to Billy Corgan. Full marks to the guitarist for his Wilko Johnson-style head movements, though (forward and back, as opposed to the Thom Yorke/Kristin Hersh side to side). Very cool and I was rather jealous.
The contrast with Midlake was stark. Midlake formed at university as a jazz band, and more than in the past those roots are evident, both on their new album, Antiphon, and particularly on stage. When I saw them a few years ago in Oxford, they were stunningly good, but there was a reined-in quality to their performance, which judging from last night may have been the influence of now-departed singer-songwriter Tim Smith, who didn’t crack a smile at all that night and seemed a rather joyless presence, for all that he was key to their sound then.
“Antiphon is the most honest representation of the band as a whole, as opposed to one person’s vision that we were trying to facilitate” – Eric Pulido
In interviews since his departure, co-guitarist and former harmony singer Eric Pulido (who’s taken over from Smith as frontman) has suggested that Midlake weren’t a hugely happy crew during that tour. That’s only one guy’s side of the story – and as I said, they played wonderfully regardless – but last night they were clearly off the leash. Drummer McKenzie Smith was in fine form, his enthusiastic fills betraying his jazz roots – there were hints of Harvey Mason in his fills (now much more frequent), and the tom-heavy beats of the Antiphon tracks suggest a possible influence from Can’s Jaki Liebezeit.
The old songs naturally enough drew most of the loudest appreciation of the evening, and Van Occupanther was revisited more frequently than The Courage of Others (Small Mountain and Children of the Grounds getting an airing and nothing else, unless I missed it). Which makes sense – in retrospect, Courage sounds like one road they could have gone down after Van Occupanther, and Antiphon another. But the crowd seemed to enjoy the newer songs too, which the band attacked far harder than in the past.
Pulido sung well, but his voice was unfortunately buried in a very murky mix, which foregrounded the low end of the bass guitar and drums at the expense of the vocals and snare, which lacked punch and, surprisingly, volume – McKenzie Smith is a light-hitting, unmatched-grip player, and brute volume of the backbeat isn’t a hallmark of his playing, but neither is a thunderous kick drum, and he certainly had that yesterday, so the drum balance that we heard was not coming from his playing. Perhaps it was a democratic decision by the band to sound this way live – ‘We’re a band now, not a singer-songwriter with backing musicians, so the vocals are just part of the sound.’ But the voices were notably lower in the mix than on the new record, and there didn’t seem much need for it to be that way.* The mix did gain a little in clarity and focus as the songs rolled by, but it did somewhat mar my enjoyment of the gig (yeah, I’m one of those people now apparently).
Still, they remain a great live band and I was happy to see them. And happy for them that the biggest cheers of the night came after a stomping performance of The Old and the Young, rather than from an older song like Roscoe or Head Home. It got the crowd moving and singing along way more than any other song last night, which is nice for Midlake 2.0. When you think about it, some of the biggest bands in the world (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac) have survived the departures of key singing/aongwriting members. There seems no reason why Midlake can’t carry on in this line-up for as long as they choose.
*I’ve done enough live sound to know it’s a thankless task, and a difficult one, so I don’t want to pile in on the crew last night. I get it. All kinds of things can be going on that are totally not your fault – but everyone and their brother will have an opinion on what you’re doing wrong and hold you responsible.
Favourite anecdote/worst scenario from my CV: very busy one-day festival in Southend a few years back. 5-minute changeovers between sets. No house drum kit. A lot of acoustic instruments to mike up. The kind of day that runs you to exhaustion and makes you hate everyone. One of the bands’ lead guitarist (playing a DI’d acoustic for a certain song) is saying over the mike that his guitar’s not working, leading everyone to look in my direction and start muttering. Once I made it through the crowd to the stage, I found that the clumsy clod had stood on his cable and pulled it out of the DI box. Yeah, it’s the things you can’t control that’ll kill you.