Mid Ayr @ Black Bear Lodge, 24th June
It’s a windy winters Friday as I arrive early in the Valley. I’m here to see Mid Ayr, who are launching their eponymous debut EP, but I’m also intrigued by the opening acts These Guy and Daggy Man. As I enter Black Bear Lodge I find myself transported to a 1930s Colorado ski lodge. Embracing its undeniable ethos, I order a scotch and dry and find my way towards the stage.
Daggy Man is Tom Calder and his acoustic guitar. This is, he informs us, his first live performance since his days as the lead of The Trouble with Templeton. His new music, which he self-describes as a ‘scrapbook of memories’, is presented to a rather subdued but nevertheless attentive audience. There is a tender quality to his performance and, for some of his more emotionally-tinged tunes such as ‘What You Desire’, the crowd is brought to a total, almost reverential, silence. As the set progresses, I start to find that something about his music, his demeanour – and even his self-deprecating meanderings between songs – seems to compliment perfectly both my scotch and the rustic intimacy of the venue.
As a result of this, I am rather thrown off by the second act of the night – These Guy – whom I know nothing about in advance. “Have you heard of these guys before?” a pun-loving fellow crowd member chuckles to his mate. The band make electro-acoustic pop reminiscent of Ariel Pink. And at their best, notably with the tune ‘Coming Around’, it is worthy of that comparison. But there seems to be some technical issues going on; they don’t get their levels right and the vocalist is drowned out for most of the set. I’m also not a fan of the musician-fiddling-with-laptop during performance thing. There’s certainly potential here though, so I’m willing to cut them some slack for a rather unpolished performance.
As the audience awaits the headline act, I notice that there has been a marked change in demographics among us. The couples-in-arms and after-work professionals have become subsumed by larger groups of the-early-mid 20s. The scotch is gone and I’m now cupping a schooner of beer. Mid Ayr begin with Hugh Middleton alone on stage, soloing with his guitar. Unfortunately, the crowd is somewhat boisterous, and many seem blithely ignorant to the fact that the performance has started. While clearly not his fault, it is also apparent that Hugh is less adroit at the subtle art of audience interaction as that espoused by his friend and former band mate Daggy Man.
Performance wise, however, it’s a different story. Hugh Middleton takes centre stage, and his talent as both a guitarist and crafter of floating melodies is on full display (ably abetted by drummer Zac Moynihan and the talented Alex Le’strange on bass). I am taken by pleasant surprise at the vocal range, which traverses from soft crooning to full-bore belching. Heartbreak tinged with angst provide the thematic content for most of Mid Ayr’s songs, but Hugh realises that lyrics can often be lost in live performance, and successfully extends his voice as an instrument. Evil Is and Letting You In are particular highlights, and have the crowd rollicking. However, while the full-band sound definitely complements Hugh’s songwriting, I would’ve liked some of the songs to be more stripped back – particularly the melodic My Mayhem. The change in dynamics would have made the ending even more powerful, as Mid Ayr crescendo to a wall of driving sound and lights, echoing the harsh, distorted pain of heartbreak. It’s a grand and fitting ending, though, to a night of diverse and promising local music.