This blog has been quiet lately for many reasons, but mostly because I'm trying to save money for a major vacation next month. But a friend of a friend of a friend came through with an extra ticket for this sold-out gig, and I peeled off a few dollars to catch the stellar double bill of Neil Finn and Midlake.
Neil Finn/Midlake, Palace of Fine Arts, April 1, 2014: My concert decisions are determined by a tricky algorithm of price, venue, and the ultimate X factor: my levels of mania for the artist in question. On two counts, the Neil Finn/Midlake gig was a bust, but oh, how that last element nagged at me. Neil, as this blog will bear out, is a longtime favorite, and Midlake made one of my most beloved albums of the last 10 years. Before an extra ticket popped up, I was ready to brush off this gig, perhaps in tears.
Luckily, I saved the salt for another day, with an unexpected bonus. The seat turned out to be fantastic: 3rd row center, with a great view of Midlake (more on that later). I have a habit of being lulled to sleep at the Palace of Fine Arts, which is amazingly womblike in its embrace, but I'm starting to suspect it helps to be in a good spot. Honestly, I don't see it happening again anytime soon.
Probably the first thing I noticed about the show was Neil's backing band: six members in all, not including himself. Building on Pajama Club, Sharon Finn took the bass and more than held her own. Neil and Sharon were joined by four other musicians, most of whom looked impossibly young and maybe reminded some of us a little too acutely of how long we've been listening to this man.
Full disclosure: I don't own the new Neil Finn record yet, but as Neil mentioned early on, he now had to the freedom to play songs from his entire discography (or "inventory," as one on-air radio personality said to him earlier that week) -- and he did, though the new songs took up a good chunk of the set. There's no way for me to describe the new songs in a short, sweet sentence, but as you can imagine, they're catchy and effortless, and you can hear the Antipodean rhythms that Neil sometimes explores. I'd forgotten that Dave Fridmann produced the album, and that somewhat psychedelic influence showed as well -- and may have influenced the swirly stage backdrop.
Among the new songs, one tune name-dropped "Game of Thrones" and may have also simply thanked us for coming out tonight. "Dizzy Heights" -- aka the "single" -- was another perfect pop package that deserves to be heard, if it weren't for the travesty that passes for commercial radio programming in the States.
Let's face it, though: When you've recorded nearly 30 years of music, we want to hear the classics, and Neil delivered. He went as far back as "One Step Ahead" and "I Got You" -- as I mentioned to friends, both of which are almost old enough to be Neil's guitarist's parents. I loved hearing "Distant Sun" and "Only Talking Sense," although the former doesn't seem complete without Jon Brion's guitar these days. Neil did nicely on the piano for "Message to My Girl" and "Don't Dream It's Over," and I believe the latter featured lovely backing vocals from Lisa and Jesse. For our part, we tried, but I don't think we did a very good job with "Fall at Your Feet." On that count, I will blame the room. More helpful, the audience pitched in when Neil couldn't remember the second verse of "Try Whistling This," which was a late decision anyway.
Neil being Neil, he let the chit chat flow, commenting on last fall's America's Cup race (clearly, it was a big deal to the Kiwis), engaging with the Mojo photographer snapping away, and bringing in his father, who was Skyping in to the show. As it was still his birthday (92 years old!) in the States, we got to sing to him too, and Neil dedicated "Wherever You Are" to him.
If the show were merely Neil and I had missed it, I probably would've been OK, but it was the announcement of Midlake as the opener that killed me. I don't know why I like Midlake so much compared to, say, Fleet Foxes and the current crop of Beardy Harmonizers™, but hey, the ears want what the ears want.
I've gushed about Midlake in previous posts, and though I wasn't in love with the last record, I've really wanted to check out the latest album (which is great) in performance. Unfortunately, the band has mostly opened for artists I don't care for, and I was out of town when they played their one headlining gig. Their three-year layoff and band drama didn't help either.
About the band drama: Certainly the former lead singer was a huge presence and force in the band, but they've regrouped well, with the second (?) in command stepping up. Singer/guitarist Eric Pulido's presence on vocals and guitar has sure come in handy, to the point you almost don't notice the shift.
Generally, an opening slot wouldn't satisfy, but this wasn't your ordinary warm-up. For one, Neil Finn was the follow-up, and second, we saw Midlake's rare three-person acoustic arrangement -- two treats in all. Talk about win-win!
The room was maybe 25 percent full for Midlake, and even among those gathered, the band's recognition was low. Fortunately, they turned it into an inside joke, repeating their marketing spiel after every song and charming the newbies -- or at least the ones willing to give them a try. Honestly, Midlake is major Mojo/Word/Q fodder and deserves a listen.
The set felt short, even by my greedy standards, perhaps five or six songs in all. They opened with "Young Bride" and came back to "Head Home" later in the set. In between, they did "Antiphon," and at least two more from the new record -- maybe "It's Going Down" and another? Finally, they closed with "I Shall Be Released." I expected "Young Bride," which still bewitches me on a regular basis, but "Head Home" was a surprise. Alas, no "Roscoe," though I think that pops up from time to time at other shows.
Their voices sounded great in the hushed, respectful hall, especially on the new songs built around these specific harmonies. Since I haven't seen their latest electric incarnation, I can't compare this performance to the full-band treatment, except to say I'm even more raring to watch them play again.
Thank you, Neil Finn, for never disappointing and, this time, for bringing along a stellar opening act. Midlake, please come back and play your own gig. New fans might even show up next time.
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