After The Airborne Toxic Event announced last week that bassist Noah Harmon would be taking a temporary leave of absence for baby-related reasons, TATE fans were anxious to see how his replacement, Ashley Dzerigian, would fare. We didn’t have to wait long for the first ever Airborne show without one of the band’s members.
Ashley made her TATE debut Saturday night at an intimate show in Vancouver, benefiting a pair of local charities: the Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation and A Better Life Foundation. With just 300 people in the house, it was the closest thing to a private gig that any of us are ever likely to experience. In fact, due to the unusual layout of the venue which left dozens of guests looking up at the band from a lower level, the crowd actually felt even smaller, at least for those of us lucky enough to be close to the stage.
The stage itself was only about 10 feet deep and six inches high, which left most of the band close enough to touch. From my vantage point between Mikel Jollett and Anna Bulbrook, Daren Taylor’s drumkit was only about six feet away, providing an entirely new perspective on the drummer, who had me laughing all night at his antics behind the skins – definitely a personal highlight.
From the moment the band took the stage, it was evident that we were in for a fun night. Coming off just three shows in the past three and a half months, the group was energized and lighthearted. After introducing Ashley and joking about initiating her, Mikel invited us to “feel free to throw shit at her if she fucks up.” It was just a taste of the frivolity to come – so much so that at one point Mikel kidded that the band had been asked to play as little music as possible, and just banter all night.
With that, the band launched into the opener – an “extended remix” of “Wishing Well” that they had played a number of times last fall; a wonderful, fresh take on one of their oldest, most beloved classics. As it came to a close, Mikel shot Ashley a huge grin and a nod and said, “One down!”
And then we were into the guitar-driven rocker, “Numb.” At this point it became clear that Noah’s absence, while clearly not something that any TATE fan would wish for, does bring with it an unexpected side benefit: this is now Steven Chen’s time to shine. The guitarist was quite literally front and center all night, having moved over one spot to take up residence to Mikel’s immediate left. Whether it’s the new position on stage or just the fact that he stands out more without Noah’s theatrics beside him, Steven owned the stage like I’ve never seen before. He also filled the vocal hole that Noah has left, contributing backing vocals on nearly every song. As for Ashley, she was stationed in the back corner to Daren’s left, allowing the others to take the limelight as she feels her way into her new role.
After a typically crowd-pleasing “Half of Something Else” came the song that I was most anticipating seeing Ashley play: “Gasoline.” With its opening bass riff, this was her first chance to take the spotlight for a moment, and she seized it – albeit from the back of the stage.
The next number brought with it another surprise: the introduction of another new TATE guitarist. Back away from the cliff, Steven fans! No, he is not joining Noah on the sidelines. Mikel explained that there was a young man in the house, for whom TATE is his favorite band, and the only way to get him into the 19+ venue was to make him a member of the band for a day. With that, a seven-year-old boy (the son of the concert organizer) took the stage, guitar in hand, to join the band for a rousing rendition of “Changing” that had the crowd grinning from ear to ear.
Noah was definitely missed during “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” Daren handled the drum intro on his own, without Noah and Mikel pounding away, and of course Anna didn’t get her customary ride atop the bassist’s shoulders – though the cramped space likely wouldn’t have allowed for either of those moves, anyway. Despite these changes, the crowd favorite was no less blistering. Mikel made one of several references to the exorbitant ticket prices we’d all paid in support of the charities, assuring us that this earned us the right to “jump around like a bunch of fuckin’ monkeys!”
“Moving On” was followed up by the band’s latest single, “Hell and Back,” – a song whose staying power has surprised even its writer, Mikel admitted before the show. After just a few months in the band’s repertoire, the rollicking stomper has already become a highlight of the live set, with its call and response audience singalong.
The close quarters made it impossible for Mikel to make his usual foray into the audience and around the venue during “Something New,” but an inside joke with Anna caused him to laugh through much of the song. Which brings us to my Highlight of the Night.
It has been approximately forever since “Missy” was played prior to the encore of a TATE show, where it’s almost always the last song of the night (96% of the time time on the Such Hot Blood tour, not that anyone is counting…). But on this night, the closer came about 10 songs earlier than expected: a fact that Mikel seemingly took great delight in rubbing in my face. To which I can only say “HOLY SHIT,” and “Well played, sir.”
I believe I emerged from my haze about a third of the way into the first performance of “Bride and Groom” that I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing – though apparently I had enough wits about me to capture Anna’s lovely vocals taking the place of the trumpets at the beginning of the song. The laid back tempo provided a welcome breather from the intensity of the set thus far.
The intro to “Happiness is Overrated” was even more drawn out than usual, with Mikel getting so lost in his banter that he had to be reminded which line he’d left off at. The 3-minute singalong, 300 strong, was quickly followed up by “Safe,” always one of the high points of an Airborne show. Anna simply sparkled as she drove the pace of the song with her viola, while simultaneously juggling vocal duties with Mikel – who, for his part, attacked his guitar with a chill-inducing ferocity.
With the main set approaching its apex, we were treated to a selection that’s become something of a rarity of late, as the volume was cranked for a furious “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.” After not seeing this during last year’s Northwest swing, it was a welcome return for this staple of the All At Once tour. And just as it did on that tour, “Wedding Day,” functioned as a perfect lead-in to “Sometime Around Midnight,” at which point it seemed the roof of the Portside Pub may just implode. If ever there’s been a song that transforms band and audience into a unified, bouncing organism more breathtakingly than this one, I have yet to see it.
The main set came to a close with the showstopping “All I Ever Wanted.” After leaving the stage to rapturous applause and stepping outside briefly, the band was back for an encore that would last longer than planned, beginning with the hit “Timeless.”
Next up on the printed setlist was “The Graveyard Near the House.” As Mikel introduced it, confessing that he never thought it would become a popular song, a request was shouted from the front rows. The plea was for “The Book of Love,” from a couple that has chosen the song for their upcoming wedding. After polling the audience and receiving strong support for both songs, Mikel elected to play both: first “Graveyard” (another mass singalong), and then the special request. The latter descended into comedy when Mikel completely drew a blank on the lyrics and had to bring the song to a halt. After the crowd helpfully supplied the forgotten lyrics, the band continued, but not before Mikel warned a fan who was videotaping the performance that it better not end up on YouTube. And despite the fact that it was clearly Mikel’s error, he was quick to point the finger at the newbie, saying, “I knew Ashley would fuck up,” and giving her the “You’re done!” throat slash gesture at the end of the number.
Finally, the inevitable end came with “All At Once,” which often closes the main set, but works just as marvelously at the end of the encore – one final burst of emotion and melody. And with that, they were out the door and off to an after-event, leaving fans wanting more but also knowing that we had witnessed something very special.
The fans were quick to embrace the newest band member, serenading her with “Ashley” chants throughout the evening, which clearly pleased the entire group. That’s not to say that Noah was not dearly missed, of course. His personality, chemistry and multi-instrumental ability simply cannot be replaced (for the record, there were no standup bass or mandolin on site), and his return is anxiously anticipated. But Ashley is clearly more than capable of holding down the fort while he tends to more important matters, and in the meantime, we get to see a whole new side of Steven. It’s a fun new dynamic, and it will be fascinating to see how it evolves, and to what extent it carries over when Noah eventually rejoins his bandmates.
Is it different? Yes. Will fans be disappointed? Unequivocally, no. So let’s enjoy this unique moment in the history of the band. It’s off to a blazing start.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.