Mildlife – The Night Cat, Melbourne (9/5/19)

The Night Cat hummed with the excitement of young bodies pulled together by a unified cause, the bass heavy beats emanating from the DJ booth adding to the chatter and the general expectancy of imminent good times. The buzz in the room tonight felt indicative of that surrounding the band themselves, who, against conventional odds, have been busy bringing soul jazz to an increasingly large audience. Mildlife are local heroes these days, and friends to many in the audience who have watched them progress over the last few years towards much more than local renown.

The venue’s in-the-round setup, whereby the audience forms a circle around the stage, particularly suited Mildlife as, although they have been successful in capturing their sound on record, they are essentially a live band, and the transference of energy to and from the audience is a major part of their chemistry.

Essentially the rhythm section plays funk; James Donald’s drumming is heavy and highly danceable, while Tom Shanahan’s bass playing is tastefully understated yet full of feeling. Shanahan leaves enough gaps between the notes so that the lower end is never crowded, even when sharing that space with the synth, which at times allows him to explore further up the neck of his instrument. Though the set started off decidedly mellow, the band’s ‘70s Euro soul jazz influences heavily on display, by the halfway point the drums were pounding with an immediacy that kept the room pulsing and several dancers dissolving into the groove. Although there was always a lot happening, it never got overwhelming and the work of Donald and Shanahan kept things grounded, while percussionist Craig Shanahan added dimension and shade with congas, shakers and chimes.

Synth wizard Kevin McDowell was responsible for contributing bass and melodic lead parts, as well as swirling, textural synth sounds that made it less obvious where things were going, while also nodding firmly towards ‘70s prog rock.

Amid all this stood guitarist and flautist Adam Halliwell. Halliwell holds the task of being the lead melodic instrumentalist in the band, and the arrangements are constructed in a way to provide ample space for his virtuosic soloing. Armed with a clutch of deftly employed pedals, he produced a range of warm ‘70s-nodding tones from his guitar, moving between giddying solos to funk vamps and everywhere in between.

Things moved into heavier psych territory as Halliwell strapped on an acoustic guitar and the synth droned, and the band seemed to have hit their pace, before switching things again as they transitioned into a disco inflected section. Ending on a high with two newer songs, both heavily funky and energetic while maintaining the jazz that is at the group’s core — and featuring a tasty bit of vocoder — Mildlife quit the stage with a shy wave and no encore, having said exactly what they had come to relay.  

Written for Beat Magazine.

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