Ian Tilton

Live Review: black midi, O. at the 02 Ritz, Manchester

Stationed to my left, two strangers are mid conversation about tonight’s show; “It’s my first black midi gig. I’m shitting bricks” the younger shudders, motioning to a blur of colour, pushing it’s way in from the side doors. The other pauses, retorts (with a smirk), “You’ll survive, I BET you weigh nothing!”. And as if he’d known the first man for years, he lifted him over his shoulders fireman style. “It’s easy. You just float above the crowd mate!”, giving a dolphin-like motion and chuckling.

Meanwhile, my attention is pulled away by the support act. In childish hand, a big letter ‘O.’ is carried on stage and fills a generous portion. A man with a saxophone takes a stage right and without warning proceeds to blow his life away through some guitar pedals. A drummer joins him promptly and plays rhythmically. Despite there being a lot more hope by this point, their performance started to run into a door, maybe because of a lack of members? A riff was started on every track quite successfully, but never ended up finding its destination, causing many to take this band as a dud, instead taking time’s advantage for a toilet and bar break. “It’s different I suppose. One thing i’m glad of is the O doesn’t stand for ‘oasis reunion’.” is the most…er…creative?.. comment I heard from someone. I like to hope O. are just in their Ummagumma phase, and shortly will do something impeccable.

From here on out, the wait for black midi has become daunting. Every time I see them, I see a new beast of a band , each version and crowd more different than the last. This time, a striking poster advertising the gig, canvassing Marcus Rashford sat framed outside the Ritz for a while stopping traffic. But by the time I arrived tonight, it had been stolen, like an important painting at the louvre, placed on eBay, and a vacant frame was the only souvenir left in it’s place. Will black midi continue to live up to semi unknown the band I saw three years ago? I wonder. Will they mesh well with the rooms acoustics? and Should I be worried by a girl outside telling me her favourite band is Five Seconds Of Summer? A boxing-esque announcement blares through the speakers, interrupting my train of thought. ‘PLEASE WELCOME TO THE STAGE… THE UNDEFEATED… BLACK HELLFIRE. THE HARDEST. WORKING. BAND. IN. ENGLAAAAAND!’ A group of suited lunatics run on stage, blowing whistles into the microphones provided. This whistling jumps back from the main microphones into the stage monitors, causing a showering of feedback, only to be drowned out by black midi’s debut album opener ‘953’. Giving the audience no time to breathe, the group play a set of three gapless songs, the first being the above mentioned infamous career starter. Each member shining in their own right here. The pinpoint in tonight’s performance is Akinnbi on sax. It’s as if his head banging is driving the audience into a frenzy, as they mosh in time to his movements.

The other two were a curious pair. One an unfamiliar song, starting with some dramatic spaced out chords played in two time, and a first line most bands would be afraid of using. By boldly commanding their audience to “LISTEN”, Greep, subconciously or not, tells us that this is the best thing we’re going to hear all year. Not exactly an understatement, given it has that throat grabbing quality of a classic album opener. Greep delivers one of his – now perfectly crafted – monologues over a megapolis of sound. Likely from the perspective of an officer reprimanding his private, Greep in a snarled tongue spews lines like, “to die for your country does not win a war, to kill for your country is what wins a war!”. Over this are some guitars that shadow the ghost of a 2004 Les Claypaul, eccentric keys, and maddening drums. Picton brings back his strummed bass, causing another level of disruption to the mix. Unfortunately all this was a little hard to hear, given the sound of the venue in general was appalling. This issue is something I can attribute to a certain magic lost in tonights performance, especially when 90 percent of the show was an entire albums worth of new material.

In the mix of new material we hear ‘Sugar/Tzu‘, an absolutely sublime cut, as we’ve seen on the bands latest Kexp session. Here it sounds only half as great as on there due to the mix. Still, the section at the end is thrilling to see live. Greep plays a solo in the high range of his guitar, while the rest of the band go wild on an improvisation trip. Wonderful. Other tracks demonstrate the band in more scaled back form. Greep continues his Scott Walker 3 songs (heard on Marlene Dietrich), with one eyebrow raising cut, where he makes the comparison between a brothel and a bank. Another has the band swap instruments completely. Picton on guitar and Greep on bass. An intriguing choice to say the least. I have taken iconic photographer Ian Tilton with me, who sends me into a laughing fit comparing Picton’s new look (moustache and all) to Ned from The Simpsons. Their well known material is ever growing, and now includes cheeky nods to the 1971 Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory film, as the group throw in riffs from the Candy Man Can at one point in tonights set. Cheekily humorous.

Despite all the positives, this has been the first time i’ve seen black midi and shook my head once. An odd rendition of Speedway with re-altered lyrics about Manchester City football club is performed, in which Picton rambles about which players he digs and doesn’t on the team for the entire length of the song. Maybe i’m loosing my humour, but I do sometimes worry that the band are selling themselves more as memes than talent makers at this point, which is a real shame. At another, the band slow. Greep puts his guitar down, plays the foil, laugh bigger than his face, and directed something of a school pantomime performance. Seth Evans moves from his keyboard stand with a plastic pirate sword, and starts pushing it into Kaidi Akinnbi’s back, who makes a contrived fall while Greep makes a groan worthy joke about ‘shanking’. A week later i’m still trying to work out what this performance has to do with any of the musical numbers bookending it. At a complete stretch, maybe Akinnbi got chondromalacia patella when falling, and now Greep is demonstrating it in their next song, one named after the knee injury. I couldn’t help but find it vacuous.

Despite a little magic lost tonight, black midi will always have something to give, even if a tad unexpected. Never a dull moment.

Photos: Ian Tilton