Live Review: Midlake, John Grant, Toy Soldiers, Philadelphia, PA, April 10, 2010

MidlakeFans got an earful of indie music at the TLA on Saturday night with headliners Midlake, along with singer/songwriter John Grant and hometown openers Toy Soldiers.

“We’re used to smoky bars,” said Toy Soldiers guitarist Daniel King as the rest of the band rushed to tune instruments and begin their set promoting Whisper Down The Lane (Mad Dragon). Frontman and songwriter Ron Gallo brings a Dylanesque, homey feel to his group’s energized, jangling rock that pulls heavily from folk and southern influences. The guttural “Throw Me Down,” with soulful, riffing back-up vocals from Kate Foust, showcases the band’s raw, infectious energy. Poetic lyrics in songs like “Bloodmoon” and “Hardtimes” set Toy Soldiers apart from other local bands trying to be “the next new sound.” They take their cues from past greats with a more traditional folk/rock sound. All in all, they’re just fun to watch.

John Grant, previously of the Czars, took the stage next, backed by a band featuring one member of Midlake, which produced and played on his new record, The Queen Of Denmark (Bella Union). Grant uses his memorable, floating baritone vocals (think Rufus Wainwright in a deeper register) and cheeky lyrics to stand out against the melancholy melody. “I Wanna Go To Marz” is a bit Bowie influenced with its spacey, electronic sounds and stadium vocal echoes. On the title track and other songs, like “Sigorney Weaver,” the lyrics are sometimes humorous, sometimes experimental and other times more like the writings at a college poetry slam. While Grant uses his evocative baritone and odd lyrics to capture the audience, he relied too heavily on his often comical lyrics, and the energy of the set quickly deflated.

Midlake formed at the University of North Texas by a group of jazz students. The current lineup includes Tim Smith, McKenzie Smith, Paul Alexander, Eric Nichelson, Eric Pulido, Jesse Chandler and Max Townsley. The Denton natives use four guitars along with keyboards, bass and drums for an incredibly full sound, topped off with a lighter, jazzy flute, on their latest album, The Courage Of Others (Bella Union). Though rooted in jazz, this progressive folk band is more heavily influenced by Jethro Tull, with a sound sometimes reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and other ’70s rock. The title track pulls from a harder ’70s sound, but the dippy flute makes the full, ripping guitars jazzy-soft. As the flute acts to lighten up the driving group of guitars, bassist Alexander uses his sound to fill out the percussion, making songs like “Winter Dies” and “Small Mountain” sound like somber marches. While listening to The Courage Of Others, there is a definite energy pushing one song into the next; live, however, Midlake seemed lackluster. Unlike the album, where each songs plays into the next, picking up new energy, this live performance was like one long song. Midlake seemed to be missing that stage presence and audience connection that makes a great album transfer to a live performance. Not to mention the band members outed themselves as Astros fans on a night the Phillies played that Texas team, which never bodes well when trying to woo a Philadelphia audience.

—Cristina Perachio; photo by Kelly McManus

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