The Airborne Toxic Event – I liked this 5-piece band based in Los Angeles before I saw them live for the first time on Tuesday, April 9 at the Vogue Theatre, thanks to the singles they released over the years since the band first appeared on my radar around 2008 (thank you, “Sometime Around Midnight”). It’s different when you’re listening to the radio or have the CD on in the background – it’s not ‘active listening’ by any stretch, but in a live situation, you pay much more attention to musicianship and lyrics and all that other good stuff that makes a live performance truly come alive. I found tonight to be illuminating.
‘All At Once’ got the show started amidst audience cheers with an atmospheric beginning that crescendos and builds to a full-voiced (everyone but lead guitar has a microphone), room-filling, audience encouraged to clap along, sequence of climaxes. Just when you think you’re at the apex of one, they up the ante giving this song a proper rock vibe even with a viola. Stylistically, I would put them as a blend of Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon, with a lead guitarist who has studied his U2. For ‘The Secret’ Anna Bulbrook exchanges her viola for the keyboard. ‘Gasoline’ is a fast paced song (in 2 2 time perhaps?) and fun to watch – for the bridge it looks like singer/rhythm guitarist Mikel Jollett and lead guitarist Steven Chen are playing ‘guitar wars’ while Bulbrook and bassist Noah Harmon (who looks like he’d be equally at home in a punk band) are also dueling it out. The chord progression in the chorus reminds of another song that I can’t put my finger on, but it sounds very familiar. I’m glad Concert Addicts photographer Pavel Boiko got a few shots of the ‘drum huddle’ Harmon, Jollett, and drummer Daren Taylor (visiting him on his pedestal appears to be mandatory – everyone does it at some point) that was such an enjoyable feature of ‘Does This Mean You’re Moving On?’ (I also enjoyed the bouncy characteristics of the guitar parts). Speaking of bouncy, even parenthetically, if you ever wondered if it were possible to ‘rock out’ whilst playing mandolin, the answer is yes, thanks to Harmon in the song which followed, ‘True Love’. As they go through their setlist, I get a sense of the efficiency of this band. There’s not a lot of talking between songs. For the most part one song ends, there’s a pause of about a second or so (primarily for instrument switching, otherwise I doubt there’d be one), and then it’s off to the next one, in this case ‘Changing’. The transitions are almost seamless. For part of this song, all of the instruments are scaled back – I think it was one guitar, vocals, and drums – and the audience was invited to clap along to the syncopated rhythm during the bridge. ‘Something New’ was the next song and the audience members on the ground floor of the Vogue clearly looked like they got their hopes up when Harmon produced a guitar pick and strummed his bass guitar to start the song. As it continued, it sounded especially guitar heavy in contrast to what the rest of the instruments (including vocals) were doing.
Jollett then takes a few moments to reminisce about the band’s first trip to Canada, which coincidentally wasn’t that far away from Vancouver: Pemberton Music Festival had the honour and Jollett laughs when he shares “we were new, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, and really drunk”. Apparently they also blew many months’ worth of per diems to arrive in Pemberton by helicopter. I’m sure ‘fun was had by all’, as the cliché goes. Certainly memorable for this and the next song was from those days ‘The Girls in Their Summer Dresses’. If it hadn’t become crystal clear by this point, lyrically Jollett is a gifted storyteller. He also has a versatile vocal range that serves to punctuate the emotive elements in his lyrics. And when they’re not stories, the lyrics are often truly quite poetic (Exhibit A: ‘All at Once’). Moreover, that voice: resonant, nice timbre, a hint of a rasp – and excellent phrasing. If it were just him on the guitar singing in the corner of a coffee shop, you wouldn’t get any conversing done. All eyes and ears would be on him. Aesthetically, there’s also a hint that he could pass for a distant relation of Damian Lewis. Female listeners (maybe some males, too) might even dissolve into puddles.
For ‘Half of Something Else’, Bulbrook was back on viola whilst Chen took a turn at the keyboard. Lots of applause when this lovely song concluded. For ‘Numb’, TATE turned the ‘stadium sound’ back on. They are more than capable at it and can ‘bring it’. When the lights were completely dimmed after the song was done, it was the perfect excuse for the audience to continue their loud cheering. I really enjoyed ‘Safe’. Chen was back on guitar and Bulbrook stayed on viola and had lively instrumentation as an undercurrent to the even and steady vocal part, really creating some drive and lovely tension. This song had a fabulous build-up that you think might be self-sustaining again which then levels out to an atmospheric ending with just guitar and Jollett’s voice. Gorgeous.
A little bit of a disclaimer from Jollett as he takes a stance behind the keyboard saying he can’t really play piano. Liar. He can. Bulbrook on viola for this one: ‘Wishing Well’. There were slight problems with the sound , something needed adjusting, as there was feedback from somewhere, but not distractingly so. The crowd downstairs didn’t care – lots of happy jumping from the first several rows! ‘Timeless’ was akin to perfect, even with a guitar heavy bridge. It was plaintive, emotive, powerful vocally, Harmon with a short bow on the double bass was lovely, and a couple of people even tried holding real lighters up. The audience compromised with raised arms swaying back and forth, with nary a blue-lit mobile in sight. Bliss. That blissful state ended quickly with the first notes of the next song as screams and cheers erupted that remained fairly constant through the duration of ‘Sometime Around Midnight’. Harmon stays on double bass for the introduction, moving to the more portable (and electric) version right after. Again, this song in a live environment was a little guitar heavy, which is super and appropriate for the bridge, but not so much when they’re almost overpowering the vocals atop the story being told. The audience downstairs is the most active I’ve seen them so far. This song also received the loudest applause of any song thus far (time check: 10:05 pm, the band have been on-stage for a full hour). If ever a song by TATE had a built-in show-ender component, it’s ‘All I Ever Wanted’. Live, it has the full stadium sound and a sense that you’re gearing up for the end of the night with a perfectly graduated high-energy wind-down that just takes you to a place of cheers and applause and whatever else you can think of to audibly express your appreciation. The audience does so for a full 90 seconds (-ish, I didn’t time it with a stopwatch) before the band is coaxed back for an encore. The first offering is ‘The Storm’ and has a nice understated beginning and end. For ‘The Graveyard Near the House’ Jollett was accompanied by the downstairs crowd singing along and Bulbrook’s almost ethereal backing vocals during the chorus. It also featured the return of Harmon on double bass. The layering and interweaving of instruments was strikingly lovely. ‘Happiness is Overrated’ saw a bit more energy, Jollett just lets the raspy-edge of his voice rip (how is his voice still holding up so well?), the downstairs crowd sang along, the audience as a whole was taught a line to repeat (“I’m sorry, I just lost my head”) and there was good cooperation upstairs and down, also with clapping in the middle of the song. There were loud, and I mean very loud, cheers and applause afterwards. Everyone knows it’s nearing the end of the night and ‘Missy’ is done as a medley/interspersal with Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’, maybe ‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in-between (TATE has done it before and it fits thematically and rhythmically, but I’m really not certain), Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’ and then back to ‘Ring of Fire except now it’s more of a rock ‘n’ roll version. I think Bulbrook even does a little of what Maritimers call ‘dirty bowing’ – it’s a particular sound effect on violin (listen to some vintage Natalie MacMaster and you’ll know what I mean and then translate it to viola) and with the pinky on your bow-hand down it belies any Classical training. The lukewarm / mildly enthusiastic audience members in the mezzanine gave a standing ovation at the very end, downstairs didn’t need to, all the seats had been removed and it was standing room only. Whilst everyone was still cheering band members shook the outstretched hands of people in the first couple of rows (there’s only so far an arm can reach after all) and one of the Canadian members of the TATE crew (Jollett had said earlier in the show that there were a few Canadians on tour with them who were happy to be home again) came out of the wings bearing a Canada flag and there was more applause for him as he tore across the stage a few times. And that was it: 90 minutes of wonderful sonic barrage. Currently on tour supporting their third studio album Such Hot Blood with a release date of April 30, 2013, The Airborne Toxic Event bring a lot of vim and vigour (not to mention electricity) to their live shows and are consistent performers from beginning to the over-too-soon end.
Oh, yes, there was an opener. From Los Angeles, we got to hear Nightmare Air who played music on the heavier side of rock for half an hour. They are a trio (Swaan on bass, Jimmy on drums (who does a more than decent job), Dave on guitar; both Swaan and Dave sing. She channels The Joy Formidable; he channels Ozzy Osbourne. She’s Cousin It with long legs and a micro mini; he’s a bespectacled Muppet, reminding me of Rowlf. She has the stage presence of a dishcloth looking everywhere but at the audience except when she’s singing, Dave seems friendly enough but drops a lot of F-bombs when talking to the audience and that’s pretty much the only time you can understand what he’s saying because when he’s singing, all you can comprehend are the vowel sounds. Depending on the quality of the lyrics, I would probably have forgone the F-bombs for lyrics, but alas that was not to be. Altogether unremarkable and even some members of what I am presuming is this band’s target demographic (university age young men) with whom I spoke afterwards were less than impressed.
Setlist: All At Once The Secret Gasoline Does This Mean You’re Moving On? True Love’ Changing Something New The Girls in Their Summer Dresses Half of Something Else Numb Safe Wishing Well Timeless Sometime Around Midnight All I Ever Wanted
Encore: The Storm The Graveyard Near The House Happiness is Overrated Missy (also excerpts from Ring of Fire, I’m On Fire and another song)