Live Review: Midlake at Williamson Tunnels, Liverpool

Posted on 5 February 2010
By Ed Devlin
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Anticipation has a habit of setting you up. After releasing one of the best albums of the past few years, the triumphant ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’, it seems almost impossible that Midlake could live up to such high expectations on this mini-tour showcasing new material.

This gig had been sold out for months, and bears testament to the fact the Texan’s new album, ‘The Courage Of Others’, is one of the most eagerly awaited of the year so far.

Support comes from Sarah Jaffe, a fellow resident of Midlake’s hometown of Denton, Texas. She beats a noisy crowd into submission through the sheer strength of her bellowing vocals, and some lovely, yet simple, songs of heartbreak and romance.

The set is perhaps overlong for a support act, but a jaunty cover of Loudon Wainwright’s ‘One Man Guy’ is a delight, and sees Jaffe accompanied amiably onstage by Midlake guitarist Eric Pulido.

The cold, dank and dripping Williamson Tunnels may not be the most comfortable of places on a snowy night in Liverpool, but the unique venue lends a sense of intimacy, occasion and excitement. Indeed, Joseph Williamson, the eccentric 19th Century tobacconist and original owner of the Tunnels, was a mysterious character who wouldn’t be out of place in a Midlake song.

As the beards and band piles on stage, having extended from a five-piece to a magnificent seven, there is a tingle in the air. Their new album is a significant departure from ‘… Van Occupanther’, with the chooglin’ keyboard-driven funk being replaced by a drone- raga take on classic English folk – although it is equally devastating.

It’s surprising how, played live, the beautiful and delicate harmonies of ‘The Courage Of Others’ are given a muscular edge, by the wall-of-sound assault of the four guitars, without losing any of the original magic. This may be down to elegant use of the flute, which dominates tonight’s set.

‘Winter Dies’ opens the set, and frontman Tim Smith’s lyrics about the redemptive powers of nature and the destructive influence of man (a reoccurring theme of the night and the new album) are extremely poignant.

On the even more heartfelt ‘Acts Of Man’, Smith takes the idea to its logical apocalyptic conclusion. “When the acts of man cause the ground to break open/Oh let me inside/let me inside/not to wake,” he mourns.

Smith keeps up his morose exterior throughout the set, not once does the rapturous applause rouse a smile, and he barely utters a word, preferring to let the music speak for itself. And it certainly does that.

The level of musicianship is astounding, with every one of the seven members an integral part of the whole. Not one note is wasted. Extended jams at the end of songs threaten to break out into free-jazz odysseys. McKenzie Smith’s drumming is exquisite. His velvety percussion is reminiscent of the influential session musician Kenny Buttrey, who played memorably on Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and Neil Young’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’.

For all the brilliance of the new material it’s clear it will need a while to bed in before it commands the level of admiration of ‘…Van Occupanther’. And it is here we find the night’s true highlights. ‘Roscoe’ is pure liquid music, with the playing becoming fluid and joyful, ‘Bandits’ is gorgeous, the encore of ‘Branches’ is a fitting end to the night and ‘Van Occupanther’ is filled to the brim with pathos.

Overall, Midlake just about live up to the heights expected of them, with moments of absolute delight sprinkled throughout.

The set draws to a close with a rousing ‘Head Home’, and ensures that no one in the room could possibly go there without a spring in their step and a grin fixed firmly in place.