The Denton, Texas, band Midlake has pulled off a rare feat — losing its primary singer-songwriter (Tim Smith) and emerging with a strong new album (Antiphon). Playing Thursday night (Dec. 5) at Schubas, Midlake also proved that it can still play the music from its earlier albums just fine. Guitarist Eric Pulido has taken over as Midlake’s new lead singer, and his vocal style isn’t too far removed from Smith’s. His harmonies — and the singing by the rest of Midlake’s virtuosic players — were always part of what makes this artsy folk rock band’s sophisticated, haunting music so special.
During Thursday’s show, Midlake played several of the new Antiphon songs, but it didn’t shy away from the old material, even playing the early song “Kingfish Pies” (from the 2004 album Bamnan and Silvercork) — the weird little anthem that attracted my attention to Midlake in the first place. And of course, Midlake performed key tracks from 2010’s The Courage of Others and 2006’s The Trials of Van Occupanther, the album that stands as its masterpiece. Flute melodies, guitar arpeggios and vocal harmonies meshed into enchanting forest folk music and soaring, powerful rock.
The opening act was another artist from Denton, singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe, who was accompanied by Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith (who also produced her recent songs, “Satire” and “Defense”). Turning up the volume on her electric guitar, Jaffe pushed her usually mellow songs toward a more hard-edged sound as the set progressed.
At a few of the recent concerts I’ve seen, good performances have been followed by rather tepid applause. Audiences seemed bored or too lazy or maybe too tired because of the late hour to clap loudly enough to demand an encore. This was not the case Sunday night (July 3) when Centro-Matic played at Schubas. The crowd was loud, sounding very glad indeed to hear this band from Denton, Texas, playing in Chicago for the first time in a couple of years. There was no doubt that these fans wanted to hear an encore, and they got it. (Actually, they got two encores.)
Centro-Matic recently released a album, Candidate Waltz, and the set featured a few of the new songs, including the standout track, “Only in My Double Mind,” which has all of the qualities of a trademark Centro anthem: ringing chords, a thumping beat and Will Johnson’s distinctive, slightly creaky vocals — all that, with a soaring chorus and lots of “ahhs.”
Of course, Centro-Matic also played some of its staple songs, including several tracks from the 2003 album that remains one of its best, Love You Just the Same. And the band dug out two songs from its very first album, 1996’s lo-fi Redo the Stacks, “Rock and Roll Eyes” and “Am I the Manager Or Am I Not?” And Centro-Matic can also be counted on to play a quirky cover, and this time, it was Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long.” Through it all, Johnson kicked up his legs as he played guitar while his longtime bandmates — Matt Pence, Scott Danbom and Mark Hedman — gave the music both driving force and subtle shades. It was yet another triumphant show for one of indie rock’s most dependable bands, with a pretty nice opening set by Sarah Jaffe.