Midlake - Birmingham Town Hall, Birmingham
On a night where a majority of music fans are sitting in front of the tube to glimpse Lady Gaga's latest outfit, a decent-sized crowd (many of whom, no matter their age, are bearded) have gathered in the plush inner sanctum of the wonderful Birmingham Town Hall to witness a marvellous thing. Concealing the venue's mammoth pipe organ, a backdrop of Midlake's new album cover casts them as the shaman elders of MGMT - or perhaps shady-looking Assassin's Creed extras. Before the band can come out and woo us with their mystical magic however, support act Sarah Jaffe whips us under her thrall with a set of hushed folk and sly attitude, segueing between acoustic and bass while her pure vocals elevate the songs yet further. Fans of Laura Marling and Stephanie Dosen should search her out NOW.
A robeless Midlake take to the stage with little fanfare, the seven of them - yup, they've filled out from five for the live arena - quietly and efficiently taking to their markers as if completely unexpecting the rapturous response they provoke tonight from the assembled crowd. 2006's The Trials of Van Occupanther didn't merely change the musical landscape of Adrian Mule's decade; as critical plaudits piled up, it evidently found its way into the homes and hearts of many. Its biggest fan recently reviewed new album The Courage of Others and, given the high score awarded, Mr Mules would certainly have been impressed with a set that revelled in the new material.
Opening with an extended jam, the band soon settle into the particular groove that the new album excels at. More mournful and downcast than Occupanther, the first three songs of the set travel at the same mid-tempo stride with no hurry to get anywhere fast. It means that when Bandits and the evergreen Young Bride follow, their honey melodies and warm tones appear like blasts of sunshine through the grey clouds. If it sounds like I'm dismissing the new songs, I'm certainly not; it's just that the band have progressed to a musical level that, while sharing the same love of classic rock and baroque influences, is a wade across the river from their previous work.
It's heavier for one thing: I count only one song where there are less than five guitars being played onstage, generally the setup being three electric, one acoustic and one bass. As the night wears on, so does the band's tendency for indulging, with fine solos ringing out over a bedwork of guitars, piano, drums and a variety of woodwind. The sense of drama is bigger here, the likes of Rulers, Core of Nature, Bring Down and the title track all playing with darker fire than the homely qualities of, well, Head Home and the definition of 'modern classic' Roscoe. In between songs, the band are gracious and hint at an amiable humour but they spend little time talking, suggesting how serious they - and the audience - consider this to be. An encore performance of Branches begins with stripped piano/vocal interplay, allowing Tim Smith's vocals to shift gear from troubled to heavenly, and transforms into one last hurrah: it's almost ironic when the harmonies bring on the line 'it's hard for me but I'm trying'. Sure, the new album might feel like harder work than the last, but if it's one thing Midlake aren't, it's floundering.