Midlake at Turner Hall
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It would be nearly impossible to find a band more ill-equipped to play Milwaukee on a gorgeous, unseasonably warm May evening than Midlake. Over the course of three albums—most notably 2006's The Trials of Van Occupanther, and this year’s The Courage of Others—the group has redefined the term “wintry,” giving listeners a vague approximation of what it would be like to hang out with Fleetwood Mac and Jethro Tull while trapped on an ice flow. Armed only with a catalog of delicate, ornate folk-rock—most of it pitched at a delicate level so as not frighten off a herd of jittery deer—Midlake faced the daunting task of making Milwaukee forget about its beautiful weather. Despite a few missteps, Monday’s show at Turner Hall found the group more than up to the challenge.
With the cover of Courage serving as a backdrop, the flannel-clad and 100-percent bearded group took to the stage with guitars and the occasional flutes and recorders at the ready. An impressive opening salvo capped by Van Occupanther's stellar “Bandits” kicked things off nicely, showcasing a band that was clearly road-tested and of the same mind. Lead singer Tim Smith made for a suitably moody frontman, and while his Ambien-infused vocals sometimes tended towards mumbly and barely-there, the group’s impeccable, tight-knit male harmonies proved revelatory.
Most surprising was the show’s overall vibe. Freed from the frosty production found on its records, Midlake came off as surprisingly heavy. Songs like “Children of the Grounds, ” “Bring Down,” and the stunning “Roscoe” even hewed close to jam-band territory, leaving more than a few audience members to engage in the sort of spacey, blissed-out dancing usually reserved for street party drum circles. Also refreshing was some playful between-song banter. An impromptu birthday wish to a wayward U.K. fan led Midlake to the plaintive “Fortune,” while a brief on-stage discussion of famous Milwaukee beers (PBR and Schlitz, natch) gave way to the excellent “The Horn.”
Unfortunately, the group couldn’t sustain the goodwill for long. Crowd and band alike appeared visibly fatigued by mid-set, bolstered only by a rousing performance of one of Van Occupanther's standout tracks, “Head Home.” Another birthday wish from the audience—this one from a mysterious “Robert Zimmerman”—led to a particularly embarrassing gaffe, with the group apparently unaware that Zimmerman and birthday boy Bob Dylan were one in the same. Finally, a slowly dwindling crowd resulted in a harsh, empty sound, leaving only a small clutch of fans crowded near the front of the stage. Even though the weather may have won out in the end, Midlake performed admirably, and in the process offered a glimpse of a possible outdoor-festival staple lurking behind all that flannel. So long ice flow, hello Summerfest.