Last month, I promised some eventual variation in the blog. You got it: Midlake's return to the Great American Music Hall in support of their new record The Courage of Others--if, that is, your definition of "new blood" encompasses a band touring behind their third album. If you're just happy that I'm writing about someone other than the usual names, thanks for slogging through, and check back in mid-April for the rundown (I hope) on someone who's a bit of a stranger to these parts.
Midlake, Great American Music Hall, March 4, 2010: I know he isn't reading this, but to the newbie who had no prior knowledge of Midlake but bought a ticket to the concert as part of a friend's birthday celebration: I apologize for snapping at your Jethro Tull comparison. I couldn't have been more insufferable, but you were cool enough to laugh it off. Truthfully, I was just as surprised by the flutes and woodwind instruments as you were by, well, probably the whole gig. Also, if the band turned out not to be your cup of tea, I hope you moved the party to Mitchell Brothers, as suggested.
For those of you who are familiar with the band, please join me in thinking of all the '70s touchstones that apply to Midlake. Got 'em? Now, I'd like to suggest another one: ch-ch-ch-changes. No, I'm not talking about eyeliner, sexual ambiguity, or Mick Ronson; I mean that in the general sense, evidenced by the bushier beards, the longer locks, the two new faces in the lineup, and the huge reproduction of the band's new album cover draped across the back of the stage. (You may recall that the band retired its art films a while ago.) Finally, add to that list one more item: the new sound they're promoting.
As someone who, for a long time, barely listened to any music issued before 1977, I wouldn't have pegged The Trials of Van Occupanther as a potential favorite when it was released, but I fell deeply in love with it, especially its mid-decade groove and ornate arrangements. In fact, if I'd bothered to issue a decade-end retrospective, Van Occupanther surely would've numbered among my dozen or so favorite albums of the past 10 years.
That's a high bar to set, and The Courage of Others has proved more challenging, as the band has reached further back into the era and plumbed more obscure depths. Certainly, I've listened to other groups that have waved the flag for the likes of Fairport Convention and Pentangle (see also: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks), but Midlake may wear those influences more prominently than anyone else in my record collection.
I've been trying to wrap my head around this realignment, but the band threw me for another loop when these pastoral leanings, in their live translations, became almost fully blown prog rock. They didn't shy from it either; the flute was the first instrument we heard, and we even got a couple of duets. Additionally, the electric piano imparted a suspiciously harpsichord-like effect at times. Thankfully, they spared us those other hallmarks of the prog persuasion: lutes, lyres, and overlong drum solos. Whew!
I won't lie: This isn't my favorite musical epoch, and I'm not entirely sold on this direction (see also: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks), but at times, the alchemy of the live show kicked in. From the new album, "Fortune," for example, combined a touch of flute, multiple harmonies, delicate guitar notes, and an ascendant melody in a sweet, succinct tune, and "The Horn" provided a rawking interlude in a set dominated by low-key, measured treatments.
Mixed reactions aside, it was clear to me that this change-up has allowed Midlake to grow in ambition and ability. Their technical mastery has never been in question, even going as far back as their show at Bottom of the Hill, but if you had any complaints about the band's skills, it'd be harder to sustain such gripes in light of their sheer musicality. This was especially evident in the transformation of the old "hits," each of which they graced with reworked intros that revealed themselves slowly and unexpectedly.
For instance, several jolts of electric guitar shot through "Young Bride" before the band hit the song's seductive sway and loping gait, and the entire assemblage worked up "Roscoe" with a wall of--be still my beating heart--five guitars in the prelude to those killer chords. Finally, "Branches" bloomed with an extended bridge in which their new guitarist channeled a young Clapton--in both sound and appearance. At this point, it's anyone's guess where their songs will end up in their next life, but I'll be back to find out.
Also hailing from Denton, Matthew and the Arrogant Sea opened the show with a sound steeped in several influences and inspirations you could probably pick out, but to their credit, their songs were instantly likable and nicely crafted. Texas is hardly lacking in celebrated music cities, but as long as it keeps nurturing the likes of Midlake and Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, Denton could very well join that hallowed list.
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