With their Mercury Prize nominated 2019 debut, Schlagenheim, London’s black midi laid claim to being one of the most dynamic and challenging bands to emerge from the UK in recent years. Released last May, their second studio album for Rough Trade, Cavalcade, deftly side-stepped the sophomore slump and continued to expand on their diverse strengths. Celebrating the release, the band hit the road, and were one of the standout acts we caught at the Shaky Knees Music Festival in Atlanta last October. So when black midi rolled into the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, NC last Wednesday for a headlining gig, we knew it was a show not to be missed.
The fidgety and excitable crowd pressed forward en-masse when the lights dropped prior to the band taking the stage as a boxing announcer’s hype proclaimed the arrival of “the undefeated, reigning champions…” Moments later when black midi emerged and launched into “953,” the opening track from Schlagenheim, the elated audience began bouncing and moshing. With barely a pause, the band continued into “Speedway,” setting a breakneck pace that didn’t let up for the rest of the show. Frontman Geordie Greep, flanked on the left by bass player Cameron Picton, and on the right by saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi, combined to form a three-man assault at the center of the stage. On the left was keys/synths player Seth Evans, and on the right side of the stage, sharing the energy and charisma of the frontmen and driving the sonic pandemonium, was drummer Morgan Simpson. Together they aggressively weaved a sonic maelstrom of experimental progressive-rock, punk, and indie with a hard-jazz sensibility that shredded genres without becoming too disorienting.
The setlist drew solidly from both of their albums with improvisational jamming often taking the songs in unpredictable new directions. They even managed to weave in a few covers, with Blur’s “Song 2” and Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In town,” surfacing in the bedlam. The frenetic energy and pace hit a crescendo with a run through the wall of noise that is Cavalcade lead single, “John L.” The song’s frenzied bluster seemed to both exhilarate and stagger crowd and band alike, leaving each a bit satisfyingly dazed. “John L.” was followed by “Defence,” and then black midi brought the evening to a close with the set ending “Slow,” leaving the sweaty and ecstatic crowd without an encore… Subscribing to the old showbiz adage, always leave them wanting more.
There are bands that approach performance as an opportunity to recreate their recorded work almost note for note in a live setting. Black midi is not one of those bands. They take their recorded songs and use them as launching points, creating a new sonic experience. Beyond the obvious hyperbole, they truly are a band you need to see live.
Opening the show at Haw River was NNAMDI, the performance moniker of experimental multi-instrumentalist, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. A long-time staple of Chicago’s indie scene, NNAMDI performed a compact set of off-kilter genre bending songs that mixed math-rock, hip-hop, indie and more… often in the same song. Ogbonnaya was thoroughly engaging as he led his band through their set, frequently chatting with the audience and sharing personal anecdotes. It was a gratifying lead-in to an evening of controlled chaos. If you get the chance, go early and catch NNAMDI, it was worth the effort.