25 November 2010
Midlake may have been trying to undermine themselves by slating their latest album in a recent issue of Mojo, but it hasn't worked, The Junction is heading towards full even as the first support act came on. This was Jason Lytle, late of Grandaddy. Performing a solo set, accompanying himself on electric guitar, this was pretty engaging considering it was completely new material to me. Good enough to have proven worthy of subsequent investigation.
The starting of the second support summoned me back to the hall from a fruitless trip to the bar, and The Junction was so packed that it was only possible to find a space at the back. Fortunately it's a fairly small room. John Grant staked his place at the stage front, and at first with only a piano accompaniment, later with a violin as well, launched into a majestic set. Occasionally taking the piano, often adding weird electronic "twiddly bits", and always singing in that dramatic, rich and attention grabbing baritone. It is a mystery to me as to why there was constant chatter from the edges of the crowd. Quite simply, had they given him another fifteen minutes then John Grant would have snatched the evening's crown from Midlake's hands.
Gorgeous, lush, '70s singer songwriter style songs, whose easy lyric and surreal touches made me think of Nilsson as much as anyone. The set opens with what could be called Grant's Science Fiction Trilogy - starting with 'Outer Space', which recognises one person's perfection as being so rare it is unearthly. 'Sigourney Weaver' offers the insights that Grant feels both out of step with the world - like Weaver not believing that the company wants to take an Alien back to Earth - and also doesn't fit in properly - like when Winona Ryder can't quite get the voice right in Dracula. I had thought 'Marz' was something special on the album, was stunned by the stripped down version Grant performed on the BBC's "Later", but tonight with the accompaniment of piano and eerily blended violin, it was perhaps the definitive version, revealing an even more beautiful aspect. The recent album's title track - 'Queen of Denmark' - was devastatingly good, a series of perfect put downs. And, like the rest of the set, didn't suffer a jot from not having a full band.
Midlake have come on dramatically over the last few years, growing in live confidence and their set was evenly balanced between the albums Van Occupanther and The Courage of Others. Those holding out lingering hopes of hearing early minor gems from 'Bamnnan and Silvercork" really should accept that it's just not going to happen. Oh, and they've added full beardage to the already present plaid shirts.
Weaving the two albums together gives the opportunity to see the similarities as well as the more obvious differences. Van Occupanther has a thread running through it which, it's true, includes one man's striving for immortality, but also has a very American pastoral feel of conquering wide open spaces and the isolation of pioneers. The Courage Of Others shares the deep connection to nature, even if it's greater dependency on minutia and dream like intensity has a far more wyrd English folk feel to it. If they were films then Van Occupanther would be some Hammer mad Victorian scientist movie, whilst The Courage Of Others would be The Wickerman.
True crowd pleasers such as 'Roscoe' and 'Head Home' are now joined by the incredible soft folk guitar introduced 'Children of the Grounds' which bursts into flame as the heavy chorus explodes. And there are spider web songs of tenuous lyric which somehow hang together in the air - 'Young Bride' with it's now customary searing guitar solo, 'Core of Nature' which overwhelms with it's loamy intensity. And maybe 'Gathered in Springtime' saw Tim Smith hit by a blank mind, and after the second false start, declaim in mock anger that it's not usually this hard to remember. But with thanks to an audience member for giving him a prompt he made it into the song on the third try, and the spell wasn't broken. It's a strange tale of sights seen from a hillside covering a lifetime of 300 years which weaves an image of altered perspectives that could have been lifted from a Wellsian Scientific Romance (this is too mannered a tale to be sullied with anything as demeaning and everyday as the label "SF").
Closing out with a fine and generous set of encores showcasing John Grant on 'Paint The Moon', Jason Lytle on Granddaddy's 'A.M.180', and finally an extended and exhilarating 'Branches'. Midlake are truly now the benchmark for English Folk-tinged Americana.
Midlake Set List
Children of the grounds
Acts of man
Courage of others
Rulers ruling all things
Gathered in Spring
Core of Nature
Dawn has arrived
Paint the moon (with John Grant)
A.M. 180 (with Jason Lytle)