Sunday, June 15, 2008

Show Review: The Airborne Toxic Event @ Pianos, NYC (6-12-08)/Webster Hall, NYC (6-13-08)

(Click on the photo to enlarge)

So as it turned out, the weekend I was heading up to NYC to visit college friends was the same weekend that The Airborne Toxic Event was playing two shows there, this past Thursday night at Pianos in the Bowery, and this past Friday night opening for the Fratellis at Webster Hall. Given that the room at Pianos holds roughly 130 people, I had a feeling that it would be the show to see, given the “personal" nature of Airborne shows. Listening to Airborne’s lyrics is somewhat like hearing a close friend pour his heart out about a romantic relationship that went array but set to music. That sort of thing is better to hear about in a smaller setting than in the midst of a giant crowd (and Webster Hall holds three floors of giant crowds), so the choice of which show to attend was obvious.

Having last played in NYC in early 2007, the band looked cheerful, chatty, and happy to be there. But don’t be mistaken, once they got started, the set at Pianos could only be described as “intense.” I’d discovered Airborne this past March during SXSW, late one night in an outdoor courtyard. And they were fantastic. But something was definitely different this time 'round (and it wasn't just the trannie fashion shoot taking place across from the bar (heh)). It could have been the smallness of an enclosed room in a tiny Bowery bar that begged for its walls to be blown out versus a courtyard surrounded by a vast Texas night, but believe me when I tell you the songs were leaping off the Pianos stage Thursday night, grabbing the audience by their collective lapels and shaking madly.

This was a band on a mission, like they were telling the many press folks in the audience (based on the number of notebooks and mad scribblings I saw going on), "Go forth and tell others what you have seen here tonight." Lead singer/songwriter and rhythm guitarist Mikel Jollett had a look of vivid determination on his face as he sang the 10-song set, and he didn't just sing/scream his lyrics, he SCREAMED them in a passionate caoinadh. Lead guitarist Steven Chen, who normally appears rather stoic onstage, was crouching and swaying over his guitar and keyboard, almost as if his fevered playing was taking everything out of him and he was about to drop. Violinist/keyboardist Anna Bulbrook was either on her knees and tearing the sound from her violin, or a whirling dervish of dance, hitting her tambourine so hard I feared some nasty bruises would result. Drummer Daren Taylor was standing up behind his kit at times, but only to better beat the bejesus out of his cymbals and snares. This passion, coupled with the size of the room, created a definitive bombastic wall of sound especially during "Papillon," "This is Nowhere," "Sometime Around Midnight," and "Innocence." “Does this Mean You’re Moving On,” a hit on Los Angeles radio, jumped and cut more than the recorded version; there was definitely an edge to it this night. “Something New” isn’t a song I was familiar with, but when you hear it, pay close attention to Chen’s guitar riffs as they are quite catchy; all I could think of was Dick Dale if he was in the Smiths with Johnny Marr. Bassist Noah Harmon is probably the only classically trained bassist who could teach a class on how to do rock kicks and stances without looking foolish, and man, can the man play. The crowd ate him up especially during “This is Nowhere.”

If folks weren’t converted in these first seven songs, the last half of Airborne’s set changed all that. Jaws hitting the floor people, I saw jaws hitting the floor, and this all started with “Sometime Around Midnight.” I personally know at least three people from that audience who had never heard Airborne before this show, and liked what they were hearing ok, but “Midnight” was what hooked 'em for real. I’ve tried no less than 10 times now to write what I saw/felt, both in terms of the vibe in the room and what I saw on stage during these last few songs (“Sometime Around Midnight,” “Wishing Well,” and “Innocence” specifically), but I’m just not finding the words to do it justice. I think it’s because these aren’t songs with just words, these are songs that drip with vulnerable emotion. The way these songs are constructed lyrically, you’re sharing the same mind/body with the person running into that ex-lover who could always break you with a look, sharing that same busted heart from a love tangled in blue, feeling that same screaming sense of despair, regret, loneliness. The way they are constructed musically, you can’t think or focus or look away from this barrage of sound and hooks and screams of lyrical pain coming at you from the stage, even if you wanted to. It is a rather exhilarating and slightly uncomfortable experience, all at the same time.

The encore song “Missy,” Jollett’s ode to a girl and Los Angeles, didn’t lose any of this power. (Let us also not forget to state here the apparent rarity of an opening act getting an encore in NYC.) I read someplace Bulbrook loves this song because she gets to jump into the crowd and dance around, a comment I thought of when I saw her crouching down by the monitors, waiting, waiting, waiting for Jollett to scream “Well I swear that there’s still some good in me,” which is the point in the song where it goes from a bouncy little melody to something full-on and raucous. And she does it in heels no less.

Jollett, in a conversation we had about songwriting awhile back, told me, “I always spend a lot of time trying to find the right words to say, and I don't know if I always do.” From the number of “Tell me you just saw what I saw” looks of amazement on many faces after the show, I think it’s safe to say his word search, for these 10 songs at least, was a stunning success. And I think the band knew they’d tapped into a something major as a band and with the audience this night too, given the big shit-eating grin each of them wore at the end of the set.

And I did wind up seeing the Friday night show at Webster Hall after all. I hadn't planned on it initially because a) I couldn’t score a press pass and tickets were around $30, and b) Webster Hall isn’t always the greatest place for a show , a venue known to “ruin the live-show reputations of good bands.” But we wound up scoring reaaally cheap tickets at the last minute, and I thought eh, what the hell, maybe I should actually *see* the show once (after the Thursday show, friends asked me if I actually watched any of it with my eyes because I was so focused on writing stuff down). Plus who knew, maybe Pete Townshend would show up for this Fratellis show too. So we went.

Airborne’s set at Webster Hall was good and I think many of the Fratellis' fans were won over based on the enthusiastic level of applause at the end of their set. But was it a hair-raising-on-your-arms kind of intensity and energy that moved from the audience to the band and vice versa like Pianos the night before? Not really, though I think that had everything to do with the vastness of Webster Hall than anything to do with the band. Hell, Bulbrook couldn’t even jump out into the crowd during “Missy” because jumping from a stage that high up and whatnot, she’d probably broken an ankle. A guy near us at the bar, who had only ever seen Airborne live at this show and the Pianos show, made an interesting point: “Last night was more personalized, more energized. At Pianos you could almost reach out and touch them, you felt the energy. Here, it is such an expansive and big place it’s tough to have that same connection. To hear the lead singer make comments like “We want to know you so come say hello” and stuff, to hear that said at a big place like this, it just doesn’t ring true in the same fashion, though they obviously mean it, given what I saw at Pianos last night.” So do I regret seeing both? Of course not, but it did prove to me that we didn't hallucinate it, that Thursday night Pianos show was something special, so much so that it spoiled anyone who attended both.

Airbone's first full length LP is out August 5th on the Majordomo label, and will be performing at, among other places this summer, the Monolith Festival in September.

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