I have to admit, I felt kinda bad for Alberta Cross when they played at the Black Cat recently with The Henry Clay People and The Airborne Toxic Event. To be the blues-rock middle band that is sandwiched between the straight ahead indie power of Henry Clay and the indie power emotion that is Airborne, they were sorta the odd man out. They were good, in their own way, very focused, and all were very capable musicians. But they were of a vein that was Jethro Tull to Henry Clay's Cheap Trick, Rush to Airborne's Orange Juice. Guitars and drums and keyboards may have been the lowest common denominators amidst these three, but that's like saying Elvis and Morrisey's music and audiences are similar because they both wore pompadours and made young girls scream.
See, Alberta Cross had to follow 40 minutes of Henry Clay’s brand of hook-filled, drive-real-fast, throw-down-till-you-are-down rock and roll, the poor lads. People maybe got there early for a good spot for Airborne, but they left fans of Henry Clay that night as well.
Like a bespectacled four-headed hydra, Joey Siara and his younger brother Andy, drummer Mike Hopkins, and bassist Jonathan Price beat the audience about the eardrums from the start with new tracks like the musical whiplash of "Something in the Water," and tracks like the so-good-it's-criminal "Andy Sings" from their record, “For Cheap or For Free." Siara got people to "save rock and roll music by putting your fist in the air like Bruce Springsteen" during "You Can't Bring it Back," and played the fabulous “You Can Be Timeless” because the Siara’s mother had requested it (mom and dad were in the audience that night, having flown over from CA to see their sons play. Thanks Mom, I was hoping they’d play that one.) They’d pretty much sealed the deal with the crowd at that point, and then they brought out a couple of friends from their hood back home: ATE lead guitarist Steven Chen to play guitar on the bombastic barrel roll of hooks that is "Working Part Time"...
...and ATE bassist Noah Harmon who sat in for a raucous and bluesy set-ending rendition of “Honky Tonk Woman.”
Based on the ear-splitting roar that went up at the song's end, it was obvious those west coast boys had wooed and won this east coast crowd. And Alberta Cross had to follow that. Kinda like The Who opening for Hermans Hermits, it just didn't seem fair you know?
As for Airborne’s set, it was so great to see them sell out the Black Cat when a mere six months ago there was, maybe, 30 people at DC9. Originally, they were to be playing Black Cat's Backstage, but someone at the Cat must have been paying attention to the buzz about them because the show was moved upstairs to the main room (something the bands didn’t know until they arrived, I heard later).
Airborne’s playing was cohesive a year ago when I first saw them in a courtyard at SXSW, and a year of continuous playing on the road in support of their self-titled debut album has only improved on that.
Lead singer Mikel Jollet recently had a nasty bout with laryngitis that caused them to cancel some shows before the DC appearance and he was still trying to ramp back up.
But good things can come out of bad situations, and laryngitis made Airborne change up the songs some, including adding Harmon on backup vocals, which I liked.
Having seen them a few times now, I can say that this is a band that’s really growing as more of a "team," rather than “just” a band that Mikel Jollet and Daren Taylor decided to start a couple years back. This is a band branching out and exploring other avenues from necessity but in doing so, they're also producing some amazing results. That adage is true I guess, necessity really is the mother of invention.
Oh, and to give you an idea of a hometown Henry Clay/Airborne mashup, this is video from a homecoming show they did last week.