Even some fifteen years later, a lot of live indie rock still falls trap to the slacker ethos established in the early ’90s by bands like Pavement and Sebadoh. Many of today’s younger bands have a hard time striking a balance between not appearing overly ambitious (Arcade Fire and Sdufjan Stevens excepted) and realizing that people actually fork over hard-earned money to see them in concert.
That’s why it was refreshing to see the members of Midlake put such care into their craft at their March 3 show at the Troubadour. It now makes sense why the band waited a year after buzz initially started building behind The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006) before launching a major tour in support of the album. They must have hunkered down in their home base of Denton, Texas to work on perfecting a live show that did right by the album’s pretty intricacies.
I knew I was in for some serious prog rock when I saw the sheer amount of keyboards the roadies hauled out before Midlake’s set: long skinny ones, short fat ones. All in all, there was more ebony and ivory on the Troub’s stage than in a Steinway showroom. When one roadie put the finishing touch on things by prominently placing the panther mask featured on the cover art of Trials, it was definitely on. (It also didn’t hurt that, moments before the band took the stage, their friend, NBC’s “Earl” Jason Lee, showed up, avowing, “This is fantastic!”)
Midlake basically took Trials and set it on shuffle. Some instrumental noodling led into opener “Gathered in Spring.” Lead singer Tim Smith’s voice was crystal clear all night as he leaned into the mike and crooned, looking like a more fleshed-out James Mercer. Midlake’s breakthrough song, “Roscoe,” was then followed by Trials‘ title track, “Bandits” and “In This Camp.” All the while, old black-and-white films, homemade band videos, or images of Trials‘ album art played on screen behind the band members.
The middle of the show found the band looking back and ahead. They played a couple of pre-Trials songs, including “Balloon Maker.” They showcased one new song, and by the sound of it, it looks like Midlake will try to follow in the same successful direction as “Roscoe.”
“Young Bride,” with its shuffling beat, woke the crowd back up after the lesser known material. Midlake then closed out the set with “Chasing After Deer” and “Head Home.” For an encore, they kept with Trials, playing “It Covers the Hillsides” and “Branches,” which, with it’s refrain (“It’s hard for me but I’m trying”), proved the perfect closer. The members of Midlake tried mightily to put on an astounding show, and in that they succeeded.