I am so much in love with The Airborne Toxic Event. I’ll admit it has been a whirlwind romance and I am still in the first flushes of love, but seriously I can’t get enough of this band right now. I am having a “where have you been all my life?!” moment.
It all started in the summer when I saw coverage of them playing at some festival. I can’t remember which festival, but I remember sitting through hours of tedious sets by tedious bands, wishing that some of the more interesting/obscure / newer bands would get some airtime when all of a sudden The Airborne Toxic Event burst on to my TV. Finally here was a band that made me sit up and take notice. I had vaguely heard of the name, but had assumed (as many do) that they were more of a metal-type band so had rather unfairly dismissed them. But their live set at that festival was one that stuck in my mind and made me add their name to my ever-increasing “to listen” list.
Months later I finally got round to looking them up on Spotify. Well I was captivated. I listened to both their albums over and over. It feels so good to discover new music. The lyrics, arrangements, energy and passion all combined into one near-perfect package. Did my research and it turns out they have a really interesting back-story. Well if Wikipedia is to be believed. A life-changing traumatic experience kick-started the lead singer Mikel Jollett (Scandinavian background? I love him already) into writing songs after previously being a literary writer. The rest of the group have jazz/classical backgrounds. I always feel secretly pleased with myself when I discover that bands that I like have classical training. I like to think that I can recognise the influences and that I am somehow more sophisticated in my tastes than just plain old rock music. Anyway, it is an interesting combination of history and experience that goes into the band and it is a powerful result.
I found that they were due to come a play in Glasgow so I snapped up a ticket and waited eagerly. I was ridiculously excited in the run up to the gig and some friends (sadly none near enough to come with me so I went alone. Again.) had told me that their live shows were incredible so that only added to my anticipation. The Arches is a cool venue, there are indeed many arches (it is underneath the main rail station in Glasgow) and it has a kind of spooky medieval thing going on. Or maybe that’s just because it was near to Halloween. At one point during the gig Mikel joked that we’d all be perfectly safe if there was a nuclear attack. It’s a small-ish venue, so there were already some people up at the front. I scouted for a suitable place to park myself, but was faced with the perpetual dilemma of not being able to see versus comfort and safety. I guessed that the crowd would get a bit raucous and didn’t want to get crushed. But then I saw an opening on the barrier and decided to go for it. I’ve come to realise that it is safer at the barrier cos at least you only get crushed from 3 directions and at least you can see the stage at the same time. Getting crushed from 4 directions and only being able to see other people’s sweaty backs is not what I want to pay money for.
Unfortunately I was right next to a ginormous speaker and the sound guy was fond of ramping it up to the max, so I was pretty much deaf in my left ear after about 5 minutes. I had vowed after the last gig to get myself some earplugs, but hadn’t quite got round to it. I could’ve asked the venue but that would have meant giving up my barrier spot. Swore to buy some next opportunity.
So the support band came on. They were quite good. I can’t remember their name. They were from Leeds I think, and a girl behind me commented that their name sounded like a posh bar or restaurant. Ok enough of the laziness, I just googled it – The Chevin. She was right. Yeah so they were ok, there wasn’t anything that particularly grabbed me about them, nothing original, but they played well and were decent enough that I was nodding along appreciatively and they got us all in the mood. I’ll say one thing for them, their drummer was pretty amazing. They had some really nice rhythms going on and the drummer rarely did a standard 2/4, bass/snare thing, he was all over the kit, that was good to see.
Then The Airborne Toxic Event’s sound guy came on and insisted that the volume be turned up even more. I wanted to smack him.
Anyway, after not-too-long a wait The Airborne Toxic Event entered the stage. My god, the sound was so loud it had reached the point of distortion. I couldn’t make out a word that Mikel was singing and my left ear began to hurt. But the band were utterly amazing. I couldn’t bring myself to move away from the speaker despite the possibility of ear-death because they were just so awesome. I keep saying that I don’t write proper reviews here, I just write about my experiences. I’m not very good at finding suitable adjectives to describe performances without lapsing into superlatives or sounding like a twit. So I’ll just say they were very very good. Mikel’s performance is at once energetic, raw, sincere, tender, heartfelt and angry. He was visibly enjoying himself, but still managed to portray the depth of feeling in the lyrics. He came down to the front of the crowd twice, one of those resulted in a full-on crowd surf half-way to the back of the audience and back again.
The band played tightly together, despite there being 5 of them and it being a fairly small stage, they managed to manoeuvre around, swapping instruments and taking turns to come to the front of the stage. There was nice interaction between them, I think each of them played together with the others at least once. I particularly liked it when the bassist played his guitar with a bow alongside the violinist. Noah (bassist) was apparently an upright bass player in a jazz band /music teacher in a previous life and often plays upright bass on records and in videos. Maybe sometimes on stage too, but not tonight. Violinist / backing singer / keyboardist Anna also came down to the front of the crowd with her electric violin, but promptly got hauled back by security.
They all encouraged lots of audience participation (not that we needed much encouragement) hand clapping, waving etc etc and Mikel would stand right on the edge of the stage and hold the mic out for us to sing back lines. Favourite moment had to be shouting “GASOLINE” throughout the song of the same name. I think he was down on the barrier at that point. One of the most surreal words to be shouted at a gig but it worked. Almost as weird and as much fun as shouting “SOLACE!” during a Mystery Jets gig.
I love American bands because they just ooze confidence and charisma, you just can’t help but love them. All the members had the rock star pose down, they all looked super-cool but not arrogant or pose-y (yeah, that’s a word, shut up).
It was interesting because having just got both their albums recently, and together, I knew which songs I liked but I didn’t know which were the big crowd-pleasers or singles or anything. But actually every song got a great reception and I enjoyed them all, I sang along where I could, given the intelligibility of the lyrics due to the sound system and the fact that I haven’t yet learned all the words. Not my fault, I have listened to the albums a lot but there are also A LOT of words in each song. Not a bad thing, I quite like the narrative style of Mikel’s lyrics but it’s not easy to pick them up in a short space of time. But anyway, I just enjoyed watching and listening. At least the volume of the speakers meant I didn’t have to listen to my fellow audience members caterwauling away with their own versions. And they are an interesting band to watch – 5 of them means there’s always something going on. I tried to draw my eyes away from Mikel (not easy, did I mention the oozing charisma?) because it was fun to watch Noah’s posing, Anna’s beautiful violin or Steve’s studied concentration. Couldn’t see the drums much but they sounded good.
There were so many good moments, the whole evening was one super-extended good moment, but hearing, “Sometime Around Midnight” live was one of those extra-special moments. The song is a slow, crescendoing surge of a song, with characteristic narrative lyrics, no chorus or hook and it just swells as the story progresses and every time I hear it I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach and my hairs stand on end and I just have to stop and listen to it with my full attention. One of those songs. So it was great to hear it live and it lived up to expectations, I got shivers as soon as I heard that violin intro. It is a gorgeous song with dark lyrics and incredible emotion and I’m sure half the audience were almost in tears. I certainly was.
The set ended, much thanking and waving, and they went off stage, emerging for a very short (2 song?) burst of encore then suddenly they were gone. The lights stayed dim for ages and no-one moved, we all thought we were going to get another encore, but alas the roadies woke up and started dismantling the kit. The set must have been less than an hour, which on the one hand was disappointing but on the other hand I think my ears would have started bleeding had it gone on any longer. But it was one hell of an almost-hour. I wish I had been there with someone so that I could gush about how great it was. In the end I did the 21st century thing and tweeted about it. I did meet some girls in the bathroom who were swooning at the fact that they’d touched the hand of Mikel when he was down at the barrier, one of them was disappointed that she had failed in her attempt to grab his ass.
I looked longingly at the merch stand on the way out, but seeing as I was flat broke I couldn’t afford anything. And it’s not like I need any more band t-shirts.
I’ve continued to listen to their albums since the gig and checked out their website which contains book and music recommendations and is well worth a look. I am now a total convert and class The Airborne Toxic Event among my favourite bands. I’ll be first in the queue should they return to Glasgow and that gig will stick in my memory for a long time, one of the best I have ever been to.