Live Review: black midi @ Union Craft Brewing — 10/21/21

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Morgan Simpson of black midi during a performance at Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore on Oct. 21, 2021. (Photo by Casey Vock)

When’s the last time you absorbed live music that legitimately blew you away? What would it sound like or look like?

These are questions you might not ask yourself each time you head to a local venue, but you could have nevertheless been faced with answers to them if you happened to find yourself at Union Craft Brewing recently, when black midi, a rock group from London, was making an important appearance on their current stateside tour.

Recently highlighted on Pitchfork’s 25 Next List and only two albums into its career, black midi has made a massive splash having just come to fruition in 2017 after a pack of BRIT School students began casually practicing together.

Guitarists Geordie Greep and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin and drummer Morgan Simpson started things off as a trio, added bassist Cameron Picton a short while later, and before long, they were essentially an artist-in-residence at The Windmill in London’s Brixton district, where they began to gain a reputation for their one-of-a-kind sound delivered via riveting, dense live performances.

By the summer of 2018, the group had connected with acclaimed producer Dan Carey and released its first single as black midi, “bmbmbm.” The band gained momentum with a live recording at The Windmill, as well as a live set in Iceland recorded by KEXP, and in January of 2019 signed with Rough Trade records, an impressive achievement for an outfit so early in its life.

The rise continued — black midi played at the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival in early 2020 and by midway through the year were hosting a monthly talk show on NTS Radio, known as The Black Midi Variety Hour.

Watch the official video for black midi’s 2021 single “John L” via the band’s YouTube channel:

Yet the group has experienced its share of significant challenges already — Kwasniewski-Kelvin left the band indefinitely to address his mental health, and he wasn’t featured on the band’s second album, Cavalcade, released on May 26.

But if its inclusion in the high-profile Pitchfork feature is any indication, black midi is bringing something wholly different and thrilling to the ears of listeners. Whether those listeners come from the same place or genre doesn’t matter, because this group is simply an attraction to anyone — they’ve attracted fans of any and all punk categories, jazz, progressive and improvisational rock, and the lesser-talked about “math rock.”

Whatever you so choose to call it, black midi is overpowering, uncontrollable and dangerously explorative. Recorded and live the band’s music is an outright shelling of sound, seemingly competing in every moment to accelerate, amplify and blast itself onto a continuum. The most startingly abrupt stops only served to tease the audience with a catch of breath before launching back into full swing. Many of the 14 black midi songs played last Thursday night in the Charm City raced toward some infinite rhythm, the pace of which might almost defy the typical listening experience.

In other words, you had to listen carefully to enjoy it or even possibly understand it, or it might have run you clean over.

And in a bizarre twist, black midi opened for itself at Union Craft Brewing on Oct. 21, taking the stage as an act called The Orange Tree Boys and performing three tracks, including “Born Under a Bad Sign” by Albert King and a cover of Tom Waits’ “Down In The Hole.” Essentially a tune-up, they’d return in different attire just a few minutes later to serve their mind-blowing collection of songs before a wild crowd that needed to be manually constrained with the metal barricade so as not to topple it.

Greep, all-business in appearance, might not be a large man physically but his voice is vast and commanding, and his hands are apparently strong and fast on the guitar. With Kwasniewski-Kelvin not currently in the mix, Greep’s frantic, intricate chords were precise to any average music goer’s ears, and his peculiar personality helps define the band’s perplexing character. He feels like the prototypical human for this job, whatever its requirements might entail.

“Is this just another night? Or is this the best night of your lives?” Greep, with an imperialistic slant, asked the audience, which was vehemently warned by staff that crowd surfing would not be allowed.

An award-winning, heralded musician before black midi was formed, Morgan Simpson creates an atmospheric storm from his seat, one of the most dexterous and tireless and blazingly fast drummers you will probably see. He has prowess, and he flicked through some of the most confounding, intimidating sequences imaginable. His eyes rolling back in his head as he twirled and smashed with a blinding speed and precision — compartmentalized, sporadic microbursts to rolling, epic drumlines — Simpson appeared to be a key driver of the black midi machine.

Picton has fingers like spider legs, and much like Simpson, he’s asked to play at a clip that just doesn’t even seem possible, but yet every song was underwritten with these rich, aggressive, vibrating notes, and his focus boded extremely well for the band as it weaved through heavy-duty tunes from its two studio albums — the first, 2019’s Schlagenheim, said to be slightly improvisational; the second, 2021’s Cavalcade, more deliberate.

Stream black midi’s 2021 studio album Cavalcade via Spotify:

black midi’s touring squad has included, since 2020, Kaidi Akinnibi on saxophone and Seth Evans on keys and synthesizer, and the presence of these two talented musicians revealed and celebrated the depth of the band’s sound. Akinnibi, tall and with all the hair, had authority over the audience anytime he stepped to the front of the stage to blow through the brass with all his might; meanwhile, Evans was a bit of a man behind the curtain, layering in textures that as subtle as they might have been were crucial in creating the fleeting, conflating, indecisive sensations momentarily spawned within black midi tracks.

A fascinating, disquieting, cutting-edge blend of whatever music forms you want to hear in it, the original core of this group impressed from the start, infusing intense and resounding energy into the air of the packed venue, the home of Duckpin Pale Ale.

“You guys paid money to come see the show,” Greep said, possibly a reference to the pandemic (hopefully) beginning to wane, or just a simple statement of fact. “It’s inspirational. Here’s to you.”

Out of the gate, “Speedway” from Schlagenheim showcased the band’s experimental timing and multi-directional approach to song structure, and then “953,” also from the premiere album, began the pounding in earnest — a track that takes a mysterious path toward an unforgettable, smashing rhythm that slows and quiets only to allow Greep’s words to be heard. A track that might best capture the band’s identity through its sound, this song literally exhausts itself, wheeling consistently to the same cadence but painting it with remarkable noise, stress and gravity.

Making the most of the five-man touring version of itself, black midi broke off a relentless, tornadic take on “Chondromalacia Patella,” a song from Cavalcade that samples an inexplicable array of intonation on its way to a spiraling frenzy, the likes of which some venues just haven’t seen, Union Craft Brewing certainly one of them — until last Thursday.

Watch black midi perform the 2019 single “bmbmbm” live on KEXP on YouTube:

In “John L,” the lead single from Cavalcade, Greep’s voice was at its most effective, a low rumble that floats over a blitz of some of the most head-spinning measures you’ll hear at a live show today. He transformed his pitch, carrying his sound into the distance as the track unwound, stopped, restarted, sped up, churned and pounded to oblivion, even teasing “Merry Go Round Broke Down,” better known as the Looney Tunes theme. After an incredible build up, with almost comical pauses in action, Greep was there to guide it at the end in masterful fashion, a bead of sweat on his forehead hinting at the warmth within his full suit.

Like something out the mind of Terry Gilliam, and healthy fodder for the conversation about genres, or maybe why they don’t really need to matter, black midi has quickly jolted the brain of anyone who has given the band a listen. And with attention to detail, diligence and its savvy, this group showed in Baltimore last week that it is offering something unusual, maybe even risky, to those who are willing to examine sounds like these.

Setlist

as Orange Tree Boys

Born Under a Bad Sign (Albert King cover)
Down In The Hole (Tom Waits cover)
Random R&B Jam

as black midi

Speedway
953
Welcome To Hell
Despair
Dethroned
Sugar/Tzu
Circus
Eat Men, Eat
Hogwash and Balderdash
Defence
Lumps
Chondromalacia Patella
John L (with Looney Tunes theme)
Slow

Here are images of black midi performing at Union Craft Brewing — including as their own opening act, The Orange Tree Boys — in Baltimore on Oct. 21, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.

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