If anyone thinks the life of a rock musician is glamorous, one only has to look at the Instagram photo posted by Anna Bulbrook of The Airborne Toxic Event on the morning of March 14th, after their evening performance at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, with the caption “5 am lobby call.” It was a nutty back-and-forth journey from New York City to Cleveland to Boston to Chicago, but they pulled it off in grand style with two stunning shows at the Paradise Rock Club and left some very grateful and extremely happy New England fans (and those from elsewhere) in their wake.
These beautiful performances were something of a homecoming and a “full circle” of sorts for the band. They first played the intimate 933 capacity Paradise on March 7, 2009, during their debut headlining tour, to a rapturous audience and virtual love-fest. The next time they came to Boston, in October of that same year, they had already graduated to the House of Blues and wouldn’t play the Paradise again. This is why these shows were so special. And indeed, there were at least a few fans that had been at that early show. In fact, one woman said she was at the WFNX lingerie party in July 2008, which was my first Airborne show. Yes, Boston and Airborne go way back.
Due to the marvelous placement of these two shows on the weekend just before St. Patrick’s Day, there were fans from all over New England (and further) who made the trip in, braving our extremely sketchy weather. What was cold rain on Saturday turned into a mini blizzard on Sunday, securing the city’s snowfall record for this ridiculous season and prompting Mikel to thank the audience on night two for risking their lives to get there in the snowstorm. Fans who drove in and lined up in the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday also got a taste of Boston’s annual St. Paddy’s Day festivities, which included many well-oiled celebrants going into and coming out of neighborhood bars, such as a crazy guy on Sunday dressed all in green with orange hair who staggered down Commonwealth Avenue and right into the unlocked Paradise club in mid-afternoon, crashing Airborne’s soundcheck. Among those who braved the snow were folks from New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and during night two, I heard an unmistakable hissing sound – Philly represent!
Night #1 was the 18+ show, but I’d have to say that for both nights it was an older audience than what one typically finds at an Airborne show these days. I was very happy to see this, and I think these were also older fans (as in people who had been following the band for some time). Saturday night felt special because of the history and the sheer intimacy of this great venue, but truth be told, it wasn’t an easy night for the band. There were technical problems that kept the atmosphere from being as loose and happy as it should have been. Regardless, they put on a wonderful show despite the sound issues.
From my vantage point at the front, it seemed like a great reception for the Dope Machines songs, with many singing along even to ballads like “My Childish Bride” and “Something You Lost.” But of course the energy level exploded once the films ended and the band burst into well-loved favorites like “Gasoline,” “Happiness Is Overrated” and “Sometime Around Midnight.”
For me, “Change and Change and Change and Change” was the sparkling diamond embedded in the middle of the set, amusingly performed just after “Changing.” It sounded ok. Yes of course, I’m joking. It sounded fucking amazing. If there were technical difficulties during that incredible song, I sure as hell didn’t notice them.
In the encore, “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” was replaced by “The Graveyard Near The House,” which was perfectly fine by me and judging from the crowd’s reaction, everyone else there as well. The audience wrapped their arms and voices around the song in a loving embrace. “All At Once” brought the evening to a close in sophisticated and elegant style.
I expected the all-ages Night #2 to be more of a full-on, high-energy rock ‘n’ roll show with all the energetic youngsters, but it far surpassed my expectations. All the technical difficulties had been resolved and with the pristine sound and wildly enthusiastic fans, it was a happy band and an even happier audience.
Anna, who had a rough first night with microphone and monitor problems, was obviously relieved to have everything working as it should and her vocals were strong, clear and beautiful. Daren, Steven and Adrian were also at the top of their game; it was a night where you could feel that everything “just clicked.” And Mikel, as I heard several people say, was simply possessed. You see it every now and then, when everything lines up perfectly – a great venue, superb sound, the perfectly paced setlist, an enthusiastic audience. It all combines to create a magical night.
I continue to enjoy the synth-pop portion of Dope Machines far more live than I do on the album. Oddly enough, “Time To Be A Man,” which at first I didn’t care for at all in its studio form, sounds tremendous with those Gretsches and Anna’s live vocals. Even better, Mikel began with a little speech about what the songs means to him:
I actually spent quite a long time trying to figure out what that meant. What does it mean to be a man? It’s a stupid idea, right? I don’t know, like eat beef jerky? You can think of all these cheesy, simplified things that you attach to that concept that’s ridiculous, right? So I guess for me, I landed on honesty, and this song really means a lot to me… There was a time in my life when I felt really trapped by so much that I was trying to hide from the rest of the world, and finally I realized I just had to burn the whole fucking thing down… So that’s what this song is about and it’s really a privilege to be able to play it for you now, so thank you for being here tonight.
The presentation of Dope Machines was even more wonderful with the stellar sound quality (which was great all the way up to the front row), the dual synthesizers, Steven’s EBow and the cornucopia of effects pedals that created an amazing atmosphere, especially for the latter part of the album. Songs like “My Childish Bride,” “The Thing About Dreams” and “Something You Lost” became these gorgeous aural soundscapes that you could dive headfirst into like individual vast, mysterious oceans. I’ve moved from really, really liking these songs to full-on adoration upon hearing them performed live. The same goes for “Chains,” which is nothing short of triumphant, with Anna’s viola interlude – met with a cheer rising up from the crowd – propelling that beautiful piece into the stratosphere.
At the conclusion of Dope Machines, the Paradise erupted into a full-blown sweaty Airborne rock show. It’s odd, because there were only two additional songs from the previous night, but it felt like two shows in one. The only song played both nights was of course “Sometime Around Midnight.” What we gave up from Songs of God and Whiskey (I’m sure we’ll hear more of this brilliant album when they come around again), we gained in several songs not always played these days. The beloved “Papillon” followed hot on the heels of “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” That’s the sort of one-two punch that can cause mid-air collisions if one is not careful. I don’t believe “Welcome To Your Wedding Day” has ever followed these two in rapid succession. It’s a song combination that even further courts disaster and which worked beautifully in whipping the crowd into a delirious frenzy.
Such Hot Blood is an album which a lot of fans are rather lukewarm about but which I find deeply satisfying and intimate. There are several songs that didn’t get played that much, even on the Such Hot Blood tour. “What’s In A Name” is one of those, so it was a welcome addition this night. “Half of Something Else” (which sounded lovely) is another great song that might in the future get left behind with all the new songs itching to be played. Too much music is a happy problem, though it’s inevitable that some people will lose their favorites in the merciless decision of what to play on a given night. Upon viewing the setlist before the show began, I was discussing this issue with two gentlemen next to me. We all agreed that if it meant the inclusion of a lesser-played song, we would be perfectly okay without “Midnight” (though indeed, I agreed very quietly, carefully looking around me to avoid a fist fight just before the band came on stage). I say all this ahead of a deep bow in the direction of the breathtaking “Innocence,” performed in all its elegant glory. This is one greatly loved song that has been a casualty of Airborne’s growing catalog of songs, so I probably don’t need to tell you how well received it was. It was a glorious end to a perfect main set.
At the start of the encore, instead of a SoGaW tune, we got “The Book of Love.” I realize now that this is a Boston thing. There have been at least a few on-stage proposals around this song through the years and it’s frequently requested. There was a very emotional and beautiful speech from Mikel just before the “Missy” closer.
I want to thank you all so much for being here with us. This is one of my favorite shows in a long time. As an artist, you just want your songs to be heard. There’s the experience of writing something down and you feel alone with it in your own mind. You can write it and get with your friends and turn it into a piece of music that expresses something and then other people hear that song, and it goes off into the world and takes on its own life. Once you write them, they’re free. They’re not ours anymore; they’re yours.
I’m paraphrasing, as it’s impossible to hear him over the cheering. He talks about how each song takes on a particular meaning for each person who hears it. Everyone puts the words to their own thoughts, the songs accompany their lives and everyone has their own traditions with them. And then we come together in these little moments where we celebrate these ideas or mourn these ideas. He said that it was a privilege and that he didn’t know exactly why but that it was an especially wonderful show that night.
The ecstatic Boston audience couldn’t agree more.
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.”