Product of the third generation Manchester Scene, Milk Maid are a fairly standard-looking four-piece indie band. They have two guitars, a bass, drums and an acceptable beard quota. But let us not get distracted by beard-based facts. Rudimentary internet searching will tell you that half the facial forest on display tonight first made it’s name on the face of Milk Maid’s singer/guitarist Martin Cohen in Nine Black Alps while he was playing bass and, that since Cohen’s departure, media types seem to be finding it hard to both get over the lushness of the beard and avoid reference to all things Alpy. So, it is with some relief that I am witness to tonight’s show awash with a relative ignorance of the Nine Black Alps back catalogue and enough beard experience to prevent any sense of wonder getting in the way of my objectivity.
Cohen’s guitar riffs and lead lines that are belted out through the warm evening air via fuzzy amps, making an infectious cocktail that quickly grabs the attention and makes me think of (possibly imagined) warm summer evenings past, soundtracked by The Charlatans and Ash.
There is a laid back, garage band feel about this sound – the performance isn’t perfect, there are moments of suspect tuning but it’s difficult to hold anything like that against them. There is plenty of energy (although that does seem to diminish as you move right to left through the personnel on stage); plenty of good tunes and generally plenty to like.
Ten minutes to go until Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks are due to take the stage and there is hardly enough room to swing an imaginary cat even if you really wanted to. The Brude is heaving. The almost comatosedly casual arrival of Malkmus at his microphone brings rousing cheers and much raising of beer glasses. Unfortunately, this laid back intro trips a little almost immediately as problems with the mix, microphones not working and feedback issues seem to disrupt the coolness. It doesn’t take long however before the west coast-style indie rock (finger-picked melodies and fluctuating tempos abound) drifts out over the perspiring crowd. Obviously there is going to be a Pavement-like feel to all this, Malkmus was the main architect of that sound – the thrown together, just about calculated chaos of their songs – and inevitably it leaches into this set as well. The crowd seem to enjoy it, but there is an awkwardness on stage caused partly by the technical difficulties (which continue throughout) and, it seems partly because the dynamic up there seems to be “wait to see what Steve does and then we’ll follow”. Everything revolves around Malkmus’s guitar, with even the vocals appearing to come second against it – although this may well just be as a result of the dodgy mix.
However, a phase of seeming less distracted by their surroundings does, eventually, set in. But then what’s this? A large audience member (feel free use either meaning of the word ‘member’ on this occasion) clambers up on stage and starts to take photos of his friends in the crowd! This could’ve been the final straw – the sound problems and amateur paparazzi disrupting the occasion and ruining the show. But no, Malkmus and chums deal with it well and shepherd him back into the crowd where for the next half an hour or so he continues to be a bit of a pain in the arse.
It appears, as a collective, our attention has been rattled and the work that the band put in to get us in the mood has taken a knock. It’s a shame; it was going so well and now, inevitably, “the Jicks” seem a bit fed up with all the flashes and feedback. Things come to a head when Joanna Bolme, the tall, blond bass wielder of the group, calmly but firmly suggests that everybody puts away their cameras and “experiences something”. It’s a fair point, and one that shouldn’t have to have been made. Once the masses have obliged and begin to pay attention the mood lifts and for the first time in a while it feels like a gig again and, under these conditions it doesn’t take long for the band to start playing like they love it. For a brief moment we are given an uplifting glimpse of the unmistakeable Malkmus touch, with songs that can’t help but make you smile – whether it’s because they are genuinely funny or because the noises they contain just slap a smile on your face. It is a rare thing to experience with so much of the Brit-indie-too-cool-for-schooldom saturating the market at the moment.
By the time we receive the encore the bad times of blown PA systems and snap-happy stage invaders are far behind us and the Americana, post-punk, pop-rock does it’s job. Even a broken string during the last song doesn’t get in the way this time and victory is wrenched from the jaws of defeat.
But only just.