Pics by Rick Stills (@rcstills)
Middle Kids launched their new album, Today We’re The Greatest, at Melbourne Recital Centre last week. This is what we made of it.
The impossibly danceable Middle Kids made a 1,000-person audience sit (somewhat) still and listen at the Melbourne Recital Centre last Friday, reclaiming a level of attentiveness not always achievable on the live gig scene.
In the much-anticipated live launch of their new album, Today We’re The Greatest – released back in March – the sit-down setting that had many fans umm-ing and ahh-ing brought a unique new angle to the experience of the Sydney-born band.
Celebrating the launch of his own new album A TON OF COLOURS, Ryan Downey set the tone with his famously Cohen-esque voice that seemed to rise from somewhere beyond the earthly realm – his vocal power a unique pairing with his slender but striking frame and Bowie aesthetic.
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People continued to drift in during the half-hour interlude following Downey’s set. Chatter drifted throughout the auditorium, final bathroom breaks saw many an awkward shuffle down rows of pinned legs, tripping on winter coats stuffed under chairs. The excited murmurs in the crowd were then lulled by stillness. Lights dimmed. A rising fog of smoke ushered out the unmistakable beat of ‘Cellophane (Brain)’. Enter Hannah Joy.
Last time we saw Joy in Melbourne, she was eight months pregnant. Baby or not, she somehow looks notably different every time we see her, creating a sense that we are bearing witness to her evolution into one of Australia’s best contemporary frontpeople. She still has her signature star-studded Fender Acoustasonic, though, which she played for most of the set, slung goofy over her shoulder.
For the first song, it was hard to look away from her. Beyond her simple-yet-transcendent voice, the way Joy holds herself is Marionette-like, with limbs and facial expressions that move seemingly autonomously, in sync with some higher power. Her lyricism also hits you in the guts live more so than recorded; it feels as though Joy has lived every relationship you’ve ever had.
Take ‘Salt Eyes’: “You’re never mean but you’re never that kind.” It’s the simple but previously unpinpointable relatability of her lyrics that sets Joy apart as the everywoman of our dreams.
In the second song, the rest of the band came into focus. Joy was flanked by her husband, multi-instrumentalist Tim Fitz on the bass, and touring member Miles Elkington on lead guitar (and keys for one track). With their matching brown and blonde bowl undercuts and ’90s high school rom-com attire, they roamed the stage, moving independently and unchoreographed but somehow sympatico. At one point, Fitz casually jumped up onto the piano stool. It wasn’t a rock’n’roll move so much as a cat-like whim.
Behind Joy, drummer Harry Day felt more architectural than musical, constructing a set in which the spaces between the beats were just as important as the beats themselves. He’s also a conductor for the horn section who appeared intermittently throughout – their presence, as instrumentalists more traditionally at home on a stage like the Recital Centre, further highlighted the uniqueness of this venue for a band.
Middle Kids’ whole performance was about duality, contradiction. The formality of the venue juxtaposed with the indie-rock lineup. The incredibly tight musicality at once felt unrehearsed. The guitarists, both haphazardly independent of Joy and inseparable. The atmosphere felt both intimately personal and exposed.
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Joy herself is both alien and superbly normal. Even the stage and light design, with blinkering light bulbs and beams that rained down on the stage in torrential streaks of white against the darkness. Light and dark. Good and evil. You get where we’re going here. One couldn’t help but feel the religious connotations of a dichotomous interplay that would make Steinbeck proud.
There is a shift going on in the Australian music landscape, with many bands stepping back from sweaty mosh pits and arenas, drunk crowds singing along out-of-tune. A more considered approach is emerging that is refashioning music as an artform. What Middle Kids gave us was certainly art.
Ninety minutes was not long enough to enjoy two albums’ and two EPs’ worth of thoughtful, well-made music. We look forward to seeing other artists follow suit and experiment with new and old modes of performance.
Highlight: Expanding our horizons to the world of sit-down gigs. Notable mention to the moment Joy spotted a fan in the crowd who she had spoken to outside Woolies earlier that day – and remembered his name (Hamish) – reminding us of the human perfection that is Joy, and humbling the rest of us who can’t even remember the name of the barista we greet daily.
Lowlight: A few stray hecklers.
Crowd favourite: The first few notes of every single song seemed to evoke audible declarations of “This one’s my favourite!” from different sections of the audience, but it’s hard to beat the relatable songwriting perfection of ‘Bought It’.
For more on Middle Kids, head to their website.