Midlake, Wilton's Music Hall, London
Maestros of the minor key
Wednesday 03 February 2010
Some of the best concerts occur not through the usual factors of artistry, stagecraft and showmanship, but through the right combination of performer and location. Such was the case on Sunday night, when Wilton's Music Hall hosted the Texan indie-rock band Midlake.
There was something exquisitely apt about this constantly evolving group showcasing their new album, steeped in a newfound fascination with the British folk-rock of such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention, at the country's oldest-surviving music hall, where George "Champagne Charlie" Leybourne once entertained East Enders beneath a giant chandelier of 300 gas jets and 27,000 cut crystals. Now dimly lit by sparse strings of lights, the hall's few remaining wall paintings peer down ghost-like upon the partly renovated auditorium, mirrored at the other end by the looming, monkish countenances of Midlake's giant album-cover backdrop. It all seems balanced and appropriate, a perfect confluence of architectural and musical renovation.
Which is just as well, for although Midlake are not short on artistry, they seem to shun notions of stagecraft and showmanship completely. It's fair to say that no stylist has ever cast their fashion-eye over these seven casually dressed, variously bearded guys, whose garb of checked shirts, shapeless tops and jeans evokes the slacker end of Neil Young's wardrobe, or indeed the trailer-trash aesthetic sported by the band's biggest fan, Jason Lee, in his title-role in My Name Is Earl. When singer Stephanie Dosen steps up to duet with the band's singer/songwriter Tim Smith, adding a Sandy Denny-esque flavour to "Bring Down", her fringed jacket'n'boots combo seems, by comparison, outrageously camp. It's also obvious that the introspective tone of Midlake's songs, with their affinity for roots, nature and olden times, is a reflection of Smith's own personality, as song follows song with barely a murmur by way of introduction, until the more ebullient guitarist Eric Pulido shoulders MC duties halfway into the set.
Smith begins the show seated behind an acoustic guitar, as the band starts the intro vamp to "Acts of Man", from their new album, The Courage of Others. It rolls over, building up momentum slowly, until Smith starts to sing. The band's jazz chops – they originally met while studying jazz performance at university, and initially formed as a jazz-funk combo – are immediately evident in the way that bassist Paul Alexander and drummer McKenzie Smith play with the beat, fussing gently at its edges. Smith is a brilliantly illustrative drummer, using different percussive strategies to animate the songs in different ways, using tambourine, sleighbell rattles, inventive snare rolls and fills to elevate the doomy chording of "The Courage of Others", while his weird bass drum, tom-tom and hi-hat groove to old favourite "Young Bride" is a masterpiece of quirky simplicity.
Interspersed with crowd-pleasers from the previous album The Trials of Van Occupanther, such as the serpentine "Roscoe" and the hypnotic, mantra-like "Van Occupanther", the bulk of the set is drawn from the new album, whose melancholy, minor-key mood transfers well to the surroundings – perhaps surprisingly so given the sombre harmonies and unusual instrumental palette, in which flute plays a big part. When, for instance, was the last time you heard a song open with two flutes and a recorder, as on the slow-burning, majestic "Rulers, Ruling All Things"? Or experienced a twin-flute break, their airy jazz lines intertwining like DNA strands over a phalanx of droning guitars, as on "The Courage of Others"?
By the time they get to the flute and harpsichord intro to "Head Home", the archaic, rustic textures have become a warm, comforting aspect of one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic sound designs in modern pop.
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