The Airborne Toxic Event has played all sorts of venues in their 8-year career, from dive bars to bookstores to goth clubs to muddy festival fields to iconic stages and even the occasional arena. But last night’s performance in a posh Vancouver hotel ballroom may have been a first. (“Not exactly what I imagined when I started a rock band,” front man Mikel Jollett laughed.) Behind the gaggle of TATE fans crowded against the stage, sponsors, invited guests and Vancouver luminaries including the mayor, retired Vancouver Canucks’ goaltender (and local hero) Kirk McLean and members of the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer club enjoyed the spectacle around highboy tables.
The appearance, complete with a cash bar in the lobby and a pre-show meet and greet with wine and appies served by polite wait staff, was the band’s second consecutive January benefit show for the Better Life Foundation and Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation. It was also an opportunity for fans to get a heaping taste of Airborne’s new album Dope Machines, slated for release 23-days from the time of this writing.
For me personally, TATE’s visit was just what the doctor ordered after the three most difficult months of my life. Due to the health issues with which my family has been coping, I arrived at the show physically and mentally spent, which set the stage for a more reflective experience than usual. Rather than the typical adrenaline high, it was more a wonderful evening with familiar faces, where everything seemed right with the world, if only for a few hours.
After ripping through “All At Once” to open the show, Mikel expressed his appreciation to all who came out in support of the charities, joking, “I feel like this is some dark-ass music for a charity event.” Case in point: “Wishing Well,” which gave bassist Adrian Rodriguez a moment in the spotlight.
Crowd favorites “Gasoline” and “Changing” followed, and then it was on to one of the highlights of the evening: the second-ever live performance of “One Time Thing,” which had premiered the previous night in Los Angeles. Opening with a low-pitched, staccato synth, the second track on Dope Machines is a mid-tempo groove that promises to elicit enthusiastic crowd singalongs once we’ve all had a chance to get the words down. Mikel busted out some slick footwork, having some fun with the danceable melody, which eventually exploded into a wash of synths and guitars after the bridge. It closed with the singer pouting, “Somebody told me you were mean.”
Incidentally, the band posted a 15-second clip of the opening of the track just prior to taking the stage. Here’s a taste, along with a second teaser posted today:
The band then powered through a raucous mid-set trifecta of “Happiness is Overrated,” “Hell and Back” and “What’s in a Name” before slowing things down a tad for “California,” another Dope Machines song that is really hitting its stride live. Anna Bulbrook’s viola opening is a lovely addition that began during the fall tour.
A moving rendition of “Half of Something Else” led into another highly anticipated moment: “Chains,” which received an elated reception from followers of the band when it was released a couple weeks ago. Representing something of a meeting point between classic TATE and their newer electronic impulses, “Chains” is a soaring anthem, and passionately delivered on this night. The number of lips already singing along in the front row indicated that fans have been listening attentively.
The Dope Machines closer was followed by the album’s opener, “Wrong,” simply spectacular in concert, getting the whole crowd moving. From there, the main set reached its apex with the unmatchable symphonic rock one-two punch of “Sometime Around Midnight” and “All I Ever Wanted,” which had one wondering if the hotel ballroom was really built to contain sound of this magnitude.
After a brief off-stage respite to allow everyone a chance to catch their breath, Mikel returned to the stage alone, strapping on an acoustic guitar for “The Fall of Rome.” Unfamiliar to all but the hardest core fans, the heartbreaking poetry of “Fall” had the crowd buzzing afterwards, with a number of audience members wanting to know what that song was and where they could hear it again.
Without missing a beat, Mikel strummed the opening chords of “The Graveyard Near the House,” waiting patiently for Anna to join him on stage. Throughout the song, the other band members returned to the stage one by one, adding their quiet contributions: Steven Chen plunking away lightly on the keyboard, Daren Taylor keeping time with one drumstick struck against the way, and Adrian adding a sparse bass undertone.
Skipping the setlisted “The Book of Love,” Mikel and Adrian grabbed some drumsticks and joined Daren for the classic three-headed drum monster intro to “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” Shortly thereafter, the singer would jump into the small sea of fans, leaping along with the masses.
The show came to a close with “Missy,” interspersed with Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” As they had done at the previous year’s benefit gig, the band again welcomed the young son of the event organizer on stage to play guitar and even sing along, a fitting cap to a fun and relaxed evening.
One final tidbit of note. During sound check, the band played a song that I expected I would never hear anywhere other than YouTube: “Poor Isaac.” Hard to know if they were just having some fun or if they actually intend to play it in concert at some point, but either way it was remarkable to hear.
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.