Ed. Note: This post is a reprint from Stephen Brolan’s blog. It was first published on Mar. 26, 2013, shortly after The Airborne Toxic Event’s performance at Koko, London.
Never judge a book by its cover; never judge a band by its oeuvre…
OK, it’s an aphorism that doesn’t quite rhyme; and I don’t quite care. The point itself has rhyming parallels – specifically in relation to the live-show experience. Having never seen them before, The Airborne Toxic Event’s superlative musical output – of which I had recently been introduced, thanks to a friend with impeccable taste – had me feverishly anticipating tonight’s show, but also partly dreading the kind of mawkish, gravity-laden performance beloved of bands that possess such an earnest soul. All of which makes for a more vigorous kick to our all-presuming nuts when frontman Mikel Jollett flies vehemently into opener “All At Once,” lupine-howling into the mic and darting all over the stage like Bruce Springsteen chasing a chicken. This is the man who, an hour previous, was in our company cogently and eloquently touching upon the intricacies of musical structure and the nuances of lyrical composition.
Now, this erudite philosopher is tearing the place up like Plato emerged from his allegorical cave and basking in the incendiary glare of performance.
Perhaps this is what reflective interviews (with yours truly) can do to a person?
Regardless, this is a man who seems to have turned himself inside-out, his introverted nature and deeply personal lyrics unraveling to expose an irrepressible stage persona of Mr Hyde proportions. And all the while he’s showing a captive London audience – and an under-expectant journalist – what it takes to create a true live performance.
With the arrival of the epic “Wishing Well,” the dramatic has indeed landed, but manages to evade anything resembling gushing sentiment, Mikel retreating to keyboards and viola-playing Anna Bulbrook taking centre stage with a Stevie Nicks-like air of mystique that lends everything an almost vintage air. It’s a perfect juxtaposition with which to introduce first new track, “Timeless,” an absolute anthem that mirrors its titular credentials, its refrain so immediate it makes itself at home with a familiarity bordering on impertinence – one of those tracks that, even when played for the first time, holds you captive in a state of déjà vu – time standing still as pure Music shines down and unveils the absurdity of feeling alone in this world.
And since we’re all at one with each other now – some literally, from our vantage point – TATE provides the perfect segue to whip up some serious human mosh potato, “Half Of Something Else” getting the jigsaw of limbs down front in a virtual ménage a… –what’s French for sixty-eight? – as the rest of the auditorium looks on, spellbound. The dichotomy speaks volumes about TATE’s wide-ranging appeal – their music can be wildly celebrated or quietly contemplated in equal measure. Like all great music should, it unearths the duality of people and dissolves the boundaries.
Front of stage, our man Mikel is overseeing the carnage/contemplation with an equally paradoxical quiet ebullience. That is until he ignites into aptly named “Gasoline,” his previous Springsteen nuances now transformed into a fusion of the Clash and the Undertones – a Teenage Kick right in the knackers. And with crowd duly hoofed, and going mental because of it, Mikel takes the opportunity during “Something New” to clamber up the side of the stage like an indie Spiderman. The mosh potatoes urge our hero on; the bouncers, on the other hand, apparently don’t care for human arachnids. However, the approaching stagehand soon ends up as a human rickshaw as Mikel recreates a scene from Charlotte’s Web, his not-so-incey-wincey spiderman grabbing a piggy-back on the porcine encroacher’s shoulders. Everyone goes ballistic; all except the bouncer, who is looking ominous enough to prompt the frontman to become truly Airborne and hurl himself into the sea of limbs baying for him.
The only way to follow up such theatrics is with the song that made me – and possibly the majority of the audience here – fall in love with the band in the first place. “Sometime Around Midnight” is delivered with such tender vehemence – another paradox – that the entire venue becomes a delirious cocktail of pensive euphoria that hits you exactly at that midway point between rejoicing and crying. Again, from the audience reaction, it’s an even split. Myself, I’m a pro, so I’m doing both. And thus Jekyll’n’Hyded up, “All I Ever Wanted” has me contemplating certain days of yore, its skewed quasi-’80s credentials like a soundtrack to a John Hughes film about teenage zombies with parental issues – Ferris Chews Yer Face Off; Zoms Kind Of Wander (Full of Human Flesh) – and makes for yet another twist in the Event’s ever-spiraling oeuvre.
With all this sandwiching the mid-set tenderness of beautiful couplet “Changing” and new track “True Love” (a grandiose, sky-bound track that actually stands up to its moniker), the experience feels like something of an emotional rollercoaster that turns you inside-out and back again, without ever approaching a feeling of nausea. And this is exactly why The Airborne Toxic Event are the ultimate live band – not only in the diversity of their music, but in the candour of their performance. No posturing; no preening; just a soul-bearing group living their songs right in front of you without an ounce of restraint. During the tender moments, they steal your heart… but align it with their own. When they’re in no-holds-barred mode, as during the incendiary “Welcome To Your Wedding Day,” they are the inverse embodiment of punk – like the Clash with inner instead of outer conflict. It is, after all, the braver fight.
An encore that includes a medley comprising US-centric classics such as “Ring Of Fire,” “American Girl” and “Born In The USA” sees the The Airborne Toxic Event steeped in their influences whilst unearthing their own unique interpretations – particularly with the latter track, a more sombre version of which converts the oft-misplaced jingoistic interpretation of the Springsteen classic into the national lament the Boss originally intended.
By the end, London is calling, the USA is reborn, and everyone has glimpsed something transcendent that delves both inside and out.
Truly, a spectacular Event.