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:: The Middle East ::
25 June 2010 / The Deaf Institute / Manchester
By Cath Aubergine

The thing about Australian bands - at least those from outside the Melbourne-Adelaide-Sydney triangle that makes up such a tiny proportion of the country's vast landmass - is you can always hear the space. It was there in Perth's Triffids (yeah, Perth is a major city, but an incomparably isolated one); it was there in the late Grant McLennan's "Cattle And Cane", and it runs through The Middle East. From Townsville, a long way up Australia's north-eastern coast, they're not exactly travelling light: the first song alone involves two guitars, synth, flute, some sort of miniature guitar thing, laptop, accordion - and there's quite a lot of them too. And yet the set starts with little more than a whisper, a fragile finger-picked folk sound with Jordan Ireland's voice already evocative, in the way Finn (Veils) Andrews' is, of a world a long way from here. Gradually his two co-vocalists Rohin Jones - deeper, a little gravelled - and Bree Tranter - pure as cloudless sky - join in and the beauty is so sweeping, so absorbing that the clatter from the downstairs bar ceases to exist. At the side, someone picks up a mandolin. The one with the big beard is hammering at a home-made bottletops-and-stick percussion instrument. And yes, on paper this sounds like one of those oddly irritating nu-hippy-collective type bands where everyone gets a go at the front like some high-school revue and instruments are brought out for show-off value, but it couldn't be further from the truth: every last song in this set sounds like it grew organically using only what was needed. Including that space. And grow they do: slowly and without bluster until you suddenly realise you're caught in some swirling maelstrom of sound like a looser but no less intense Strange Death Of Liberal England.

Ireland's lyrics, too, say so much more than the actual words - his deconstruction of a relationship with a girl who's not quite what she seems, for instance, is stunning: "You say your daddy was a painter of sorts, but I never saw him paint a thing, he just kept the tins under his bed and sniffed a different colour every night". As a solo acoustic guitar-slinger he'd still be worthy of attention; here gentle flute and bass so subtle as to be barely perceptible are the only accompaniments as the rest of the band stand quietly behind or wander offstage altogether. There's a chemistry between the seven of them, a feeling that the sound is more precious than anyone's ego - which is all the more remarkable when you realise just how long they've been on the road. This is their first ever gig in the UK, they tell us. "Go Townsville!" shouts a girl in the crowd; "where ya from?" asks the lad next to her, and it becomes clear that Manchester's Australian expat population is out in force tonight, and who could blame them? A song about this distant hometown is a wonderful accordion-fuelled woozy country waltz, and the emotion is tangible: "we haven't been home since March 11th" explains Rohin Jones at the end. It's a long haul, but then you can't just get in a van to ply your trade for three days at a time when the nearest major city (by European/American standards, at least) is almost a thousand miles away. "Blood" comes near the end; the song that's been catching attention online, and it distils onto three or four minutes everything the band is about from the quiet pastoral beginning to the final swell; people carry on the "oh-oh-oh"s long after the song has ended. And as he takes the lead on the final bruised ballad, dedicated to the girlfriend who's finally been able to fly out and join him and is smiling behind the merch table at the back, there are lighters aloft at the front. Yes, lighters, lit, and seemingly without irony - like everything else about The Middle East, the beauty is in the lack of contrivance.

The Middle East

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