Most college towns are hotbeds for thriving music scenes, and Denton, Texas, home to the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University, is no exception.
The city of 146,000—42,000 of which are college students—is overflowing with talent and a Mecca for skillful musicians forming successful groups, as evidenced by breakout bands such as Bowling for Soup, Centro-matic, The Drams, and the reason we’re here at Hailey’s in Denton tonight, Midlake.
For close to 10 years, the quintet (Tim Smith, vocals/guitar/keys; McKenzie Smith, drums; Paul Alexander, bass; Eric Nichelson, keys; Eric Pulido, guitar) has been kicking around Denton in various musical forms and gaining a steady following. Those fans, and everyone else who can fit into the 350-capacity club, are snaking around the outside of the venue when we arrive.
Upon entering, we’re greeted by a rep from Good Records who informs us that Midlake’s new album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, is available for purchase (three days before official drop) at a table in the back if we’re interested. We are. Makes sense that the album would be made first available at Hailey’s, as the venue is located just off Denton’s downtown square and a few streets away from the studio where the band recorded the CD they’re celebrating tonight.
Taking the riser in front of a pressed-against-the-stage audience, frontman Smith settled in behind a keyboard and welcomed the crowd before launching into “Balloon Maker” with his bandmates, while an accompanying video ran on a screen set up at the side of the stage.
Where the fivesome’s debut release, Bamnan and Slivercork, was heavy on the Radiohead-esque electronics, Van Occupanther explores more of an acoustic-guitar based 1970s-rock edge, and a big dose of that new album is performed tonight. Somewhat astonishingly, the multi-layered sound quality from the recorded versions of their songs translates well in a live setting, with Smith switching from behind the keys to acoustic and electric guitar, all while the group’s abundant harmonies offer spot-on support.
Based on the group’s sometimes quiet and introspective songs, we didn’t know what to expect in the way of banter—and if there would, in fact, be any. But Smith warmed to the audiences’ enthusiastic responses by commenting playfully on hecklers; informing everyone that they were filming “some stuff”; and setting up the evening by telling the crowd that, “this is, like, the longest set we’ve ever played.”
What turned out to be a 15-song, hour-and-20-minute show, covered both old (“King Fish Pies,” “Some of Them Were Superstitious”) and new (“You Never Arrived,” “In This Camp”) material, with “Roscoe” and “Bandits” from Van Occupanther proving to be a back-to-back highlight. The non-stop set ended quietly as Smith and lead guitarist Pulido strummed acoustics on the tender “Chasing After Deer.”
A perfect set to be sure, the quote of the evening came when Smith, reflecting on the European tour they’d just completed with the Flaming Lips, told the audience, “Denton is probably seen greater [in other countries] than it is here.” Midlake and its Trials of Van Occupanther could certainly change that.