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Midnight Choir - In the Shadow of the Circus

  by John Clarkson

published: 19 / 2 / 2009

Midnight Choir - In the Shadow of the Circus


Norwegian band Midnight Choir's new DVD was filmed in 2003 at the final show at their regular haunt of the Rockefeller Music Hall in Oslo on what was to prove to be their last tour. John Clarkson watches the band literally fall apart on stage in this intense, but compelling concert film

Midnight Choir came from Skein in Norway, which is a hundred kilometres south west of Oslo and was also the birthplace of the playwright Henrik Ibsen. Active for a dozen years between 1992 and 2004, they were popular at home, winning three local Grammy Awards. One of the very few acts from Norway to break out onto the international circuit, they were also successful in mainland Europe and travelled widely in America. They recorded five studio albums, ‘Midnight Choir’ (1994), ‘Olsen’s Lot’ (1996), ‘Amsterdam Stranded’ (1998), ‘Unsung Heroine’ (2000) and ‘Waiting for the Bricks to Fall’ (2003), and also released two compilation albums, ‘Selected Songs’ (2002), and the doubleCD, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties : The Best of Midnight Choir’ (2005). The band took its name from a line from the Leonard Cohen song, ‘Bird on the Wire’ (“Like a bird on the wire/Like a drunk in the midnight choir”), and its early influences were predominantly American, so much so that singer/guitarist Paal Flaate always sung in English, and that it went to Texas to record its debut album with Andrew Hardin, Tom Russell’s guitar player, serving as a producer. By the time of ‘Olsen’s Lot’, Midnight Choir, which also consisted of Al DeLoner (guitar/piano/harmonica) and Ron Olsen (Fender bass), had begun to move away from its early Americana roots. It had also met the Walkabouts Chris Eckman, who became the group’s regular producer and unofficial fourth member of the band, and its sound became more both European in its influences and also string-drenched and baroque. The last album, ‘Waiting for the Bricks to Fall’, was especially lavish, featuring 21 members of various Prague orchestras and chamber groups and also an appearance by Talk Talk’s Lee Harris on drums while that band’s producer Tim Friese-Greene provided choir and string arrangements . ‘In the Shadow of the Circus’ precedes a collector’s edition of ‘Amsterdam Stranded’ that will also come out this year. It has been released on the German label Glitterhouse and is a concert film, recorded on March 28th 2003, of what turned out to be Midnight Choir’s final show at their regular haunt of the Rockefeller Music Hall in Oslo on what was to prove to be their last tour. As Paal Flaate admitted in an interview with Pennyblackmusic in 2005, Midnight Choir’s internal relations were often unsettled, the band almost splitting on various occasions before it finally did so in the months after this concert took place. The mood on the stage at the Rockefeller is sombre and intense. Flaate even in front of a homecoming crowd has little time for in-between song banter or audience engagement, letting the music do the talking. His voice is world-weary and melancholic and his lyrics (which were ironically written by Al DeLoner, who did the bulk of Midnight Choir’s songwriting), reveal a want for something better and preferably far away (‘Snow in Berlin’, ‘Jeff Bridges’) or extreme personal spiritual torment and self-doubt (‘Will You Carry Me Across the Water ?’, ‘Muddy River of Loneliness’ and ‘Motherless Child’). DeLoner on Flaate’s right hand side is a solitary, remote figure. His head hidden beneath a large flat-brimmed cap, his face covered by a beard, he is totally unrecognisable from the boyish, somewhat baby-faced, laughing young man of eight years before who dominated ‘The Making of Olsen’s Lot’, a short documentary which appears amongst the bonus material on this DVD He sits hunched at his piano for ‘Snow in Berlin’ and ‘Painting by Matisse’, the opening and closing songs , and stands intently staring down at his guitar and shoe gazing the floor for the remaining fourteen songs in the set. Ron Olsen on Flaate’s right hand side comes across as similarly isolated, his body sinking in slow motion to the stage as he does the perfect splits on ‘Painting by Matisse’ to the complete apathy of the others. For all its members emotional distancing from each other on stage, the music is still nothing but cohesive and magnificent. Stripped of the strings and increased orchestrations that dominated all their recordings after ‘Olsen’s Lot’, but augmented by Eckman (additional guitars, keyboards, other noises and sounds) who drifts on and off the stage, and guest musicians Frederick Mustad (Hammond C3-organ, Fender Rhodes) and Harris (drums), it has nevertheless lost none of its lushness and little of its layered, majestic beauty. De Loner’s ode to America and 70’s cinema, ‘Jeff Bridges’, which appears just under halfway through the ninety minute set, ends with the until then passive audience suddenly bursting into an impromptu sing-a-long. ‘Muddy River of Loneliness’, with all six musicians on stage, erupts into an extended, free jazz work out, and the main set closer, the mournful ‘Amsterdam Stranded’, a lament to a dying love and lost opportunities, carries, with what was about to happen to the band, an added potency. ‘In the Shadow of the Circus’ reveals a band literally falling apart on stage, but fading out with grace and hell-for-glory style. It has not been revealed why it has taken so long, five years on from Midnight Choir’s demise, for this film to emerge. For those who missed out on them the first time, featuring songs from all five studio albums, it, however, provides a fine career summary, and for those who are long-term fans, after the double CD ‘All Tomorrow’s Tears’ seemed to put a last conclusion on Midnight Choir, a superb, additional final epitaph.

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Interview (2005)
Midnight Choir - Interview
The former frontman with the internationally popular Norwegian band Midnight Choir, Paal Flaata talks about his new solo album 'Rain'and his former group's decade-long career

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