An East Coast town and communal catharsis. Cold, wet nights 3,000 miles from home. A basement club and one fan at a time. This is a tale of two cities, two audiences and one hard-working rock band.
The WBRU Holiday Jam – Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island – December 16, 2014
If you want to see one massively appreciative audience at an Airborne Toxic Event show, come to New England on a cold, bleak pre-winter’s night. WBRU’s Holiday Jam at Lupo’s in Providence had all the warmth and good cheer of a Christmas pageant, though with an infinitely better soundtrack. The elation in the air also had something to do with the disappointment back in October, when the Pawtucket show had to be cancelled due to Mikel’s laryngitis.
On the edge of what will likely be yet another tough winter and debilitating flu season, those who reside in East Coast cities have immediate respect for any West Coast band that will come to perform for us in December. With Airborne, there’s a rich history of shows in every season (in sickness and in health). The audience included fans from Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and likely Connecticut and other nearby states as well, as East Coast shows tend to do. Or as Mikel once said to an audience at the Met, “Good evening Pawtucket, or should I say Boston and New York – I’m on to you fuckers.”
As news leaked out that Daren was struggling with the flu, the audience appreciation and empathy grew. When they came out on stage, emotions bubbled over and Lupo’s exploded into a full-on raucous sing-along, making for one of those magical, memorable evenings. It was far from the longest show they’ve done, but there was so much energy and so much joy throughout, that it was wonderful to be a part of. Daren especially, considering how awful he must have felt, was ferocious, and I’m sure most of the audience had no idea he was sick (until Mikel mentioned his illness before Missy and said how grateful he was for their drummer). Every song was treated with reverence and care, as if being performed for the first (and not the thousandth) time.
“All At Once” is a spectacular opener, from the first notes that herald the beginning of an innocent life, taking us through the soul’s journey in under six minutes and leaving the audience breathless, energized and ready for a rock and roll show. From there, it was a series of their well-loved rambunctious rockers that raised some serious kundalini, which culminated in luxurious stretching inside Airborne anthems “Sometime Around Midnight” and “All I Ever Wanted.”
I’ve always marveled at how they perfectly pace their performances. Even with the slightly shortened holiday show set, they managed to change the mood in the middle for a lovely little pensive interlude of “California,” “Half of Something Else” and “Wishing Well.” We were treated to another quieter, intimate moment at the start of the 2-song encore for “Graveyard Near the House,” always a welcomed guest. It was a vibrant show filled with emotion that flowed back and forth between band and audience.
There is something else worth noting. This was the evening I discovered an appreciation for electronic dance music. Let me explain. I’ve never been much of an EDM fan. The vast majority of it, past and present, I find cold, harsh, emotionless and lacking in the human experience that I find so essential in music. But fellow Angeleno Robert DeLong, who played just before Airborne, completely blew me away. It’s slickly composed dance music, no question, but he punctuates it with jaw-dropping mad drumming skills, some actual live keyboard playing, hilarious joystick-driven sounds and some (good god yes) lusciously warm and quite pretty indie rock vocals. Sold. And needless to say, I’m far more optimistic now about Airborne’s new direction for Dope Machines. Funny how that worked.
WEQX Acoustic Evening at The Newberry Music Hall, Saratoga Springs, New York – December 17, 2014
When I blurted out, “That was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen!”, it might have seemed like an odd reaction to what was really just a brief acoustic radio session. Did I not have the same reaction after the warm, cozy blanket of an Airborne show at Higher Ground in Burlington, Vermont back in October? After all, that was the performance where we were all gathered around in someone’s (albeit spacious) living room, while the band improvised a setlist and Mikel treated us to the breathtaking premiere of “The Fall of Rome.” However, this little acoustic set was indeed an emotional highlight in my collection of Airborne concert experiences, for several reasons.
Taken in context, this was a show that shouldn’t have happened. Daren was still battling the flu, and though they probably felt that he’d be okay through a 7-song set, I don’t know how he remained standing and so perfectly on point for those 30 or so minutes. No one but the few of us who had been in Providence ever had any inkling of how sick he was.
Secondly, there is something downright holy about Airborne’s music being stripped down to just the essentials – the soul laid bare, as it were. On a physical level, each band member’s individual sound, personality and immense talent sparkles and shines in such a setting, free of embellishments. There is no “faking it” in an acoustic performance. You can hear Mikel’s amazing lyrics, every word crystal clearly, exactly as he intended. Every note and nuance, in the instruments and the vocals, stands out. On an emotional level, without the loudness of a massive sound system and sans the rock club atmosphere, you are the closest you’ll ever get to these gifted musicians, as if you’re sitting around in a living room with friends. There’s truly nothing like it.
Thirdly, when watching the band in a simple room, without the fancy lights and the fancy choreography (and all the jumping and the screaming), it really brings home the immense challenges faced by a working band, and the concept of “winning over one fan at a time.” It’s something Mikel has mentioned before, in the early days and far more recently. You’d think they’d be past all that now, having achieved some level of success, but it still holds true, and especially on nights like this.
Both figuratively and quite literally at times, even the best of bands struggle to be heard. Through all the noise of mainstream media and mediocre acts, through all the annoying chatter of an inebriated bar crowd in search of a good party, will anyone ever hear your music? I mean, really hear it?
One of my biggest pet peeves in life is when I’m in the audience for what promises to be one of those ethereal and uplifting life-changing events, a breathtaking musical performance, only to have the experience marred by an unappreciative (and even oblivious) audience. Though this Saratoga Springs acoustic set was still immensely enjoyable, the audience, sad to say, was the polar opposite of the cozy campfire love fest of the previous night in Providence.
With how desperately those WEQX listeners tried to win the “golden tickets” to see Airborne in this intimate appearance in a 400-capacity club, once there, they behaved as though they were at a friend’s party with the stereo on in the background. It remains a complete mystery to me. Maybe it’s just that there’s nothing to do in Saratoga Springs on a cold weekday night, and people like to win stuff. It makes them feel special. It’s a shame that most of them missed out on something unique and magical.
So then why was this show so special for me? Because being up at the front, a few feet away from these hard-working musicians baring their souls and fighting to be heard, trying to win over every yammering bafoon in that crowd, one fan at a time, I’ve never felt closer to them and to their experience.
I’d like to thank Airborne, their management and crew for all the wonderful shows they managed to pull off this crazy year, even as they laid the groundwork for what promises to be an action-packed 2015 full of new discoveries. New discoveries with old friends. A very happy and healthy new year, everyone!
Along with writing regularly for This Is Nowhere, Julie publishes musingsfromboston.com, a music blog with the bipolar personality of wannabe philosopher and charlatan music critic, where she is just as likely to review the audience as she is the band. Her first Airborne show was at a lingerie party hosted by WFNX at an Irish-Mexican bar in Boston’s financial district. She does her best to live by the motto “only one who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.”