Midlake, Live at Birmingham Town Hall, 16 February, 2010
Now that spring is here it is possible to forget what an endurance test the winter has been. There's an old song by Rod Stewart- ‘Mandolin Wind’ - that contains the lines: "Oh the snow fell without a break/Buffalo died in the frozen fields/Through the coldest winter in almost fourteen years…."
The Met office - the UK’s national weather service - confirmed that the winter of 2009/10 was the coldest winter in England and Wales since 1978/9, making it our coldest in thirty-one years, though no buffalo died here, as far as I know. And 2009 was the year I discovered the beautiful wintry music of Midlake.
When I mentioned to the members of my writers’ group that I was going to a Midlake concert I was met with blank looks. Charlotte - the youngest member of the Severn Valley Authors at just turned 18 - had heard of them and a friend of hers was also going to the gig at Birmingham Town Hall. The band seems to have two types of fan - brooding teenagers who perhaps identify with the poetry of the lyrics and fortysomethings (or even fiftysomethings) who hear, in this music, echoes of Crosby, Stills and Nash, America and the fragile optimism of the early 70s.
I went to the gig with my friend Martin - conveniently a resident of Birmingham and an aficionado of semi-obscure Americana. Martin commented that he had never seen so many beards. The uniform of the band (and most of the audience) seemed to be that of a woodsman – beard, check shirt (untucked) - and many of Midlake's song evoke the woodlands and plains of America and the spirit of Walt Whitman and Thoreau.
Seen on their own without hearing the music, the lyrics of lead singer/songwriter’s Tim Smith often seem slight and childlike: “These buckets are heavy, fill them with water/I could ask these people, but I shouldn't bother… “(‘Van Occupanther’) or “Bring me a day full of honest work/and a roof that never leaks/I’ll be satisfied…” (‘Head Home’). Sometimes they seem close to nonsense poetry: “I caught an apple and she caught a fox so I caught a rabbit but she caught an ox…” (‘Bandits’). With the full musical accompaniment, however, they resonate as if part of some great folk/rock canon.
With a refreshing lack of showmanship and an apparent genuine appreciation for the venue and the audience, Midlake had come to play songs from their new album ‘The Courage of Others’. It was clear that Tim Smith had been listening to lots of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span but, with the full band of up to four guitars, flutes, recorders, harpsichord, bass and drums, I swear I could hear European progressive-folk as well as Anglo-American folk-rock and fleeting echoes of the Moody Blues, Focus and Procol Harum. The new songs from ‘The Courage of Others’ were accomplished but I suspect most of the audience, like myself, couldn't get enough of the songs from the 2006 album ‘The Trials of Van Occupanther’.
As we anticipated spring, Midlake were there to share with us the difficulties of winter. In the closing words of their song ‘ Bandits’ : “it's not always easy, it's not always easy/when the winter comes and the greenery goes/we will make some shelter/when the winter comes and the greenery goes/we will make some shelter….”