Pic by April Josie
City Recital Hall, Sydney, May 28
“Are you afraid?” Middle Kids asked as this show began.
I don’t know about us, but I’d think they might have been. Or had every reason to be. And not exactly because, as songwriting singer Hannah Joy expressed it mid-show, they were playing in a room more used to the Australian Chamber Orchestra than a Sydney three-piece pop rock band.
By not exactly I mean, yes, sure, the light intimidation of playing fine music concert halls can be a factor – though the venues on this short tour are all of this ilk, and Covid regulations mean seated shows or no show at all, so it’s been a crash course for Joy, bassist Tim Fitz and drummer, Harry Day (augmented by live guitarist, Miles).
However, the bigger fear would have been in the fact that the City Recital Hall has been something of an over-lit, comfortably seated, black hole for amplified contemporary music: draining the life out of livewire North African band, Songhoy Blues; flattening Americana singer, Neko Case; and setting up a sense of distance – physical and emotional - for artists like Elvis Costello and Paul Kelly.
While the playing sometimes underwhelmed, Middle Kids, and the venue, which is waking up to its weaknesses as it tries to expand its customer base, did not succumb to history.
Pic by April Josie
Black backdrops, a sympathetic lighting rig, dangling single globes across the stage, a mix which turned up the volume just enough, and Joy’s early call to the audience that standing up was encouraged – not to mention that audience, which stretched through two, maybe even three, very excited generations - worked to make this feel like a room built for rock ‘n’ roll. Or at least welcoming of it.
And the band did its part, mostly, throwing up variations of ’90s moves and classic/modern combinations such as The Cure and Paul Kelly (the wistful ricochets of Summer Hill), Belly and Boston’s underground (the lightly touched indie groove of Bought It), The Cure, again, and Stevie Nicks (the stylish, semi-melancholia duo of Some People Stay In Our Hearts Forever and Edge Of Town) and Juliana Hatfield with Coldplay (the wet Sunday in front of a fire pleasures of Today We’re The Greatest).
When it didn’t work, as in the busy but ultimately fruitless On My Knees, the Summer Hill prototype of Real Thing, and the elegant Blasko shapes of Bad Neighbours it was a matter of underwriting or underplaying, or both. When it worked especially well, as in the tender Golden Star and subtly heart crushing momentum of Stacking Chairs, or the vibrant one-two of R U 4 Me? segueing into Questions, Joy’s clear songwriting maturation elevated everything around it.
She really is the point of difference for Middle Kids.
One last thing about the room, or in this case the band’s sense of place there. Finishing the night with the other three members ditching instruments to come forward and sing behind Joy - ostensibly to make the most of the hall’s acoustics for an intimate a cappella take on the melody-rich Don’t Be Hiding - was negated by the fact that she was playing an electric guitar and had a microphone, rendering them essentially mute.
For once, a case of go soft or go home.
A version of this review ran originally in the Sydney Morning Herald