Black Midi Opened for Themselves as Orange Tree Boys Then Laid Subversive Musical Siege Upon Levitation
UK prog/jazz/post-punk iconoclasts entertainingly break the mold
By Michael Toland,
9:30AM, Sat. Oct. 30, 2021
Author Jim DeRogatis, in his classic book Turn Off Your Mind, called psychedelia “music that takes you to another place.” He elucidated by writing “making psychedelic art means rejecting rules, breaking down boundaries, and opening doors whenever possible.”
Those are themes Levitation has taken to heart in the past few years, looking beyond the borders of commonly accepted psychedelic trappings (some might say clichés) toward artists with limbs ripping through the envelopes into which they’ve been stuffed. In that sense, Black Midi is the perfect band to represent Levitation 2021. Conglomerating elements of progressive rock, jazz, post-punk and the weird worlds of iconoclasts like Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart, the London band almost casually breaks any mold we might attempt to apply to it.
After the PA introduced the band as if it was a boxing champion, Black Midi took the stage in suit and tie (at least frontmen Geordie Greep and Cameron Picton) and blasted into “953,” the opening cut on its debut album Schlagenheim. Like most of the set, the song’s all hard angles and clashing harmonics, with free jazz saxophone tearing its way through a vision of post-punk as speed metal, lathered with Greep’s matter-of-fact baritone. The Mohawk floor exploded into a pogoing, stage-diving mosh pit that forced the guitarist to declare “fuck off with that shit” before the song was over.
That turned out to be the only sour note, however, at least from an attitudinal perspective. Tearing through a 14-cut setlist mostly made up of unreleased songs, the Midis were relentless in their pursuit of controlled anarchy. With even fans being unfamiliar with a lot of the material and alterations made on the fly, it became difficult to tell where one song ended and another began, especially given how many of their tunes switch positions like porn actors on meth. Even crowd favorites and second album highlights “John L” and “Slow” sound made up of sections that shouldn’t work together but do, like puzzle pieces jammed in place by a child. While Picton delivered his tunes with a sincere yawp, Greep intoned his lyrics like he’d let the voices in his head out to play, which made it impossible to tear your attention from him.
Black Midi couldn’t do what it does without a high level of musicianship, yet everything it plays subverts the notion of musical virtuosity. Thanks to saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi and drummer Morgan Simpson, there might be a jazz combo under the skronk screaming to get out, but to commit to only one genre per song clearly goes against the band’s grain. It often feels these days like it’s extremely difficult to find young guns bold enough to kick rock into the future. But with its ability to come off like a Max Stalling score translated into rock music, Black Midi finds a way to translate a very peculiar, particular, and personal form of self-expression into something with the potential for mass success, and rocks the fuck out while doing it.
Bizarrely, the band opened its own show in the guise of its blues rock alter ego the Orange Tree Boys “from Las Vegas, Nevada.” (Kudos to Greep’s spot-on American accent.) The Beefheart influence comes off more overtly with the Boys, as the first two songs deftly skewer the clichés of the genre. The “group” concluded its three song set with a surprisingly faithful cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” – which they claimed to have written, of course. A smart choice, ending the shtick before it got stale. Though clearly an inside joke of some sort, the OTB presented themselves as ironically unironic. Or is that unironically ironic?
953 - Schlagenheim
Speedway - Schlagenheim
Welcome to Hell - unreleased song
Dethroned - Cavalcade
Sugar/Tzu - unreleased song
Defence - unreleased song
Faster - unreleased song
Lumps - unreleased song
Still - unreleased song
Trouble at Ram Ranch - unreleased song
Chondromalacia Patella - Cavalcade
John L - Cavalcade
27 Q - unreleased song
Slow - Cavalcade