SXSW Review: Beach Fossils; John Grant with Midlake [Buffalo Billiards; Central Presbyterian Church, March 18, 2011]

Beach Fossils, SXSW 2011, March 18, 2011 31.jpg

What does a band that relies much on reverb sound like when live? I won’t really find out until I next see Beach Fossils. This set of theirs that I went to left a little more to be desired, unfortunately. A few songs in (I think after they played the Horse?), the was a problem with the guitar. The vocal immediately declared “this place sucks”. Although that totally could have been justified – perhaps it was a long simmering irritation from when they were setting up. Anyway, it would appear that the rest of the band knew what was coming, because they started to gyrate like spintops. The vocal finally snapped a little later, breaking a few strings. OK. No big deal. I’ve seen gigs go on sans a few strings. But apparently someone had reached the brink – and the vocal declared again that the audience would either have to wait for him to re-string… or this 5 min set was all they are getting that night. You can imagine a little awkwardness all around. I haven’t heard a single “BOO” up until this point – the audience was still enjoying their show. So, the bass player actually had to come forward and… entertain, by way of stand-up comedy. I, however, couldn’t wait for them to oil the machine and restart. Off I went to the church.

John Grant with Midlake, SXSW 2011, March 19, 2011 44.jpg

Midlake’s Roscoe was one of those songs that went on single-repeat for days when I first discovered it in 2007, and I’ve been a fan since. Not that having them backup someone did not seem fitting, but I thought I would be much happier watching Midlake. As John Grant’s beefy, tenor voice filled the Central Presbyterian Church, I changed my mind. How could I not listen to someone who lists “Chinese pop, Japanese classical music, and regional Mexican” as his genre? Formerly of the Czars, Grant mentioned that he had almost given up on music, until he met Midlake. A few songs in, I realized that I had heard him before – in Marz, where he sang about a grocery store near his hometown. The format of the set was simple – Grant would rotate between the piano, guitar and vocal, while the rest of Midlake handles the nitty-gritty.

I was surprised that the church, a block down from FOX News (I am serious), would be the setting for this concert… or any concert at all. Sure they hosted Menomena! just before this set. Yet if it isn’t clear by now, John Grant is anything but a conformist. Imagine reciting these words at the altar:

I hope I didn’t destroy your celebration
Or your Bar Mitzvah, birthday party or your Christmas
You tell me that my life is based upon a lie
I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee
I hope you know that all I want from you is sex
To be with someone that looks smashing in athletic wear
Who’s gonna be the one to save me from myself?
You’d better bring a stun gun and perhaps a crowbar
I really don’t know who the fuck you think you are
Can I please see your license and your registration?

Now cast that onto a sky-piercing chorus sung at 100 db – Queen of Denmark was indeed impressive to hear (catch this session on youtube for an idea). A Presbyterian church was also the perfect setting for these bitter confessions. I think it approaches Adia in evoking emotions. The effect was clear – I think more movement would have been detected if this was a Sunday worship. I had to stop taking photos 1-2 songs into the set, because everyone else gave me the evil eye when they were disturbed by the camera shutter. Where Dreams Go To Die is another, similarly moving ballade that they performed this night. Grant’s voice carried substance, was never shrill nor thin, and it seemed to flow effortlessly from him. It may be the benches, but this was the only SXSW concert where I saw a standing ovation from the audience. Now I understand why Midlake was perfectly willing to play the second fiddle. I would go and see this guy live again in a foot-tap.

So in the end

Beach Fossils: , for the awkward set.

John Grant with Midlake:

Posted on by Gary in South By Southwest