Live Report: Midlake @ The Black Cat


4 April 2010

Washington, DC

I first saw Midlake in 2007, during one of the Denton, TX band’s many tours in support of their hit LP, The Trials of Van Occupanther. The show fell shortly after I had learned about Occupather from a Best of ’06 list and had begun playing the album on repeat, embarrassed that “Roscoe“, the Fleetwood Mac-flavored blog-smash that opened the album, had taken so long to reach my ears.

The rest of the crowd at 7th Street Entry that night fell somewhere between my geeky obsession and complete un-initiation. They were mostly single guys who probably didn’t go to shows much, had recently discovered “Roscoe” on YouTube, and had mustered the courage to step out of their comfort zone and come to the big Midlake show downtown.  Of course I’m being condescending: This was a terrible crowd! An internet buzz crowd.

They were extremely uncomfortable before Midlake went on, for a start. When the opening act (an up-and-coming singer with a hollow-body Epiphone and librarian glasses by the name of St. Vincent) declared toward the end of her set that she, “had time for just one or two more songs!”, one of the audience members actually blurted out, “Just play one!”

So Midlake at last take the stage, and open with a slower number, one of the deeper cuts from Van Occupather called “We Gathered in Spring”. More nervous shifting and grunting: When’re they gonna play “Roscoe”?!

The first song finally over, Midlake lay into their hit. “Roscoe” is the opening track to Occupanther, after all, and it belongs toward the beginning of a live set. Those M.A.S.H.-inspired keyboard tones ring out like Pavlov’s bell, and the crowd are at last brought to life.

The harmonies, the propulsive rhythm, the lyrics about building stone houses, and “Roscoe” finishes. Now what? The buzz crowd has already heard the one song they have come to hear. How much longer do these shows go? One of the great unwashed raises his voice: “WooOOoo! Best! Song! Ever! Oww!!” And then another:  “Now play ‘Head Home’!”

Guitarist Eric Pulido, bemused and visibly frustrated, squints out through the lights to find the hecklers: “We’re going to get to that one too, man. Be patient!”

I’m spending so much time describing this 2007 encounter in order to paint a hopefully representative picture of what Midlake went through in nearly every North American city they visited in ’06-’08. Fickle fans hanging on to the one or two songs they had heard on Pandora… Kind of sucks to be a buzz band, no? (Tapes n’ Tapes knows what I’m talking about.)

Following these tours, Midlake wisely took some time off to refresh and retool, and they’re finally back with The Courage of Others: a down-tempo, narcoleptic collection of Brit-folk songs that sound terrible on YouTube (or otherwise parsed from their sequenced settings on the album). Gone are the “Roscoe”s, the “Head Home”s, and other jangly toe-tappers from Van Occupather. In a further coup against the indie hit machine, The Courage of Others scored a shockingly low score on Pitchfork (3.6 out of 10!), ensuring that no blogger in his right mind would go near the album, and that the ensuing tour would be, alas, free of heckling mouth-breathers.

Still, as much as I admire the contrarian approach, I might argue that Midlake took things a bit too far with Courage. On my way to the Black Cat last Sunday night, I revisited the album on headphones, and I must admit I was not particularly excited to hear the new songs live. They all seem to have the same drowsy, descending melody, the same hushed acoustic guitars, and the same indecipherable, mumbled vocals from lead singer Tim Smith. As a listening experience, The Courage of Others rarely tries to grab your attention, let alone sustain it.

So you’ll imagine my surprise when Midlake took the stage at the Black Cat with four guitarists, and proceed to knock me on my ass with power and volume!

The seven-piece lineup could barely fit on the stage: Three electrics, one acoustic (that was Smith), bass, drums, and a keys-slash-flutes utility player. They opened with “Winter Dies”, one of those samey-sounding downers from Courage, only now reborn as a pounding, primal, theatrical assault! Suddenly the folk-dirge tempo was better for its porousness, as each guitarist cut through the mix with clean, harmonic lines.

Performances of “The Horn”, “Small Mountain”, and “Rulers, Ruling All Things”  took similar advantage of the electric arsenal, though arrangements were generally kept tight + tasteful, steering clear of jam-band tedium. (The exception, I’m sure as with many dates on this tour, was “Core of Nature”, which expanded into a surprisingly agreeable showcase for axeman Max Townsley.)

I was in heaven with the lush sound, and soon didn’t care whether Midlake would ever get around to playing “Roscoe”. They did, of course, and will do it again should this wonderful tour come to your town. But be warned: amidst the ragged glory of the new material, “Roscoe” doesn’t sound quite like it used to. You could raise your voice in complaint, but who in this phenomenal, forward-thinking band would stop to listen?


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