Midlake played a terrific show on Wednesday at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire as part of their European tour in support of their latest album “Antiphon”.
If Midlake has passed you by, let’s have a quick recap:
Hailing from Denton, Texas, they play a harmonious brand of occasionally complex (even prog-y) folk rock. Imagine Fleet Foxes songs played by jazz musicians. Or, as someone I know prefers to put it, “Weirdy-beardy music”…
After their low-fi debut had critics evoking comparisons to Radiohead, Midlake ploughed an Americana-tinged furrow on their second full length release; a concept album which received strong critical acclaim. This was an album so good, it overcame some of the more eyebrow-raising elements of the package.
Have you seen the cover of “The Trials of Van Occupanther?” It may be a fantastic album, but the cover is the sort of thing that Daft Punk would reject in case it made them look silly. It features two men in a forest, one sporting an unrealistic panther’s head whilst inexplicably wearing a smoking jacket. However, despite his ludicrous situation (“I never signed up to this when I studied two years at RADA” he is saying to himself) if we could see his face behind the feline paper mâché, we would notice a look not of shame and embarrassment, as might be expected, but of relief.
A look to the left explains why, because standing beside him is an even more ludicrous figure: what might be loosely described as a human banana. The yellow-gold lurex suit has a futuristic look, if that future was filled with terrible ’50s kids’ TV series of low budget sci-fi heroes. It’s like a poster advertising the worst pilot for a TV show ever: “Banana-Rocket Man Saves The World, (assisted by his lucky smoking panther)”. Or to think of it another way, there’s an alternative universe out there with a very odd version of “The Wizard of Oz”…
So well done to Midlake for turning this potentially disastrous LP cover into a successful concept album about American 19th Century agriculture. It’s certainly in my top three favourite albums on the subject.
“The Courage of Others” followed, with a more sensible cover this time, merely featuring bearded men wearing hooded robes. The music was again exquisite, smoother than a Russell Brand chat-up line.
But all was not so smooth in Midlake itself. Lead singer Tim Smith upped sticks and left, in a sort of “Mid-lake Crisis” (see what I did there?) This was not the first time the rest of Midlake had played as a unit without Smith, having been John Grant’s backing band on the latter’s debut solo album “Queen of Denmark”.
So the band played on, releasing “Antiphon” in 2013. The good news was that Smith was hardly missed. Guitarist and backing singer Eric Pulido stepped up and songs from the new album such as “The Old And The Young” became instant Midlake classics to sit comfortably alongside old favourites.
A sold out Shepherd’s Bush Empire was certainly in agreement. Although dodgy sound contributed to a somewhat low-key opening with three songs from the new album, the gig turned on its head when former Supergrass head honcho Gaz Coombs was introduced, joining the six piece band to sing a fantastic version of “Young Bride” from “Van Occupanther”. As if by magic the sound instantly resolved its issues and a beautiful rendition was the result. As Coombs departed, Midlake then launched into the most superb “We Gathered In Spring” – an early highlight of the show. Two songs from “Antiphon” followed: the intense instrumental “Vale” where the band got to show off their chops, and “It’s Going Down”, all harmonies and another highlight.
As the ninety minute set drew to a close, Eric Pulido encouraged the audience to sing along to the rather involved lyrics of “Roscoe”,. At first sight, the likes of
“The village used to be all one really needs / Now it’s filled with hundreds and hundreds of chemicals / That mostly surround you, you wish to flee / But it’s not like you, so listen to me, listen to me”
is not exactly the catchiest of sing-a-longs, yet there were many in the crowd singing word for word. That’s the kind of band Midlake are. They have built a loyal following, they treat their fans well (“We’ll be hanging around at the merch stall after the show” promised Pulido) and play some great music. New song “The Old And The Young” closed the main set with aplomb.
Pulido also revealed what bands do in between the main set finishing and the first encore:
“We just go to the bathroom” he admitted, only to realise this was a disappointing disclosure. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have spoiled it for you: ah, okay, we do a line of coke, a shot of whisky, we all put our hands in the middle and shout “Midlake!”