Catharsis in San Francisco: The Airborne Toxic Event’s Dope Machines Tour Hits California

Posted: March 22, 2015 in Clamoring of the Crowd
Tags: , , , , ,
Steven Chen and Adrian Rodriguez launch into

Steven Chen and Adrian Rodriguez launch into “All At Once,” a cathartic end to a joyous night with The Airborne Toxic Event in San Francisco. Photo by Glen.

By Glen

On October 30, The Airborne Toxic Event played a triumphant homecoming show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. I had anticipated this date for many months, ever since the date first leaked long before the band’s fall tour was announced. I could hardly wait to jet to California and catch them on their home turf for the first time.

On October 28, I received a phone call that changed my life. My wife was on the other end, and though it took a few minutes for my brain to decipher the words that fell from her lips, it eventually sunk in: our daughter had leukemia.

Two days later, a million miles away from the front row at the Greek, I was at BC Children’s Hospital, checking in with fear and trepidation for what would stretch into a 56-night stay to kick off cancer treatment, with many shorter stays and day visits to follow.

I’m not gonna lie. Life since that day has been hard. Like, really, really fucking hard. On top of the endless days and nights spent watching my daughter bravely fight through pain and discomfort, hardly ever seeing my wife, juggling work and home and three other kids who need their parents, there is the emotional toll. When your child is sick, it never leaves your mind. Wherever you are and whatever else is fighting for your attention, it’s always there, tugging at the back of your brain, haunting your every move.

When The Airborne Toxic Event announced a quickie March tour to promote their new album Dope Machines, I knew immediately that I could not go. The closest the band was coming to me was San Francisco – a long way from Vancouver. And this particular time in my life is not exactly conducive to taking off for the weekend.

But damn, did I ever want to go. As I frantically did the mental calculations, I realized that March 21 happened to fall during a planned chemo break – though admittedly, the schedule is always shifting and we have made more unplanned trips to the hospital than I can count. It was a dicey proposition at best, but if I could arrange for back-up childcare to cover me in the event that my wife and daughter had to dash off to the oncology ward while I was gone – and if I could talk my ever lovin’ partner into my ridiculous scheme – it just might work.

As it turned out, it did work. I’m writing this from an airplane at the tail end of my 30-hour Californian adventure. All is well on the home front, or at least as well as it gets these days. And I had a night that I needed more than I can say.

From the moment The Airborne Toxic Event took the stage at the Regency Ballroom, the atmosphere was electric – and not just because they opened the show by storming through the synth-and-beat driven Dope Machines. The band and the crowd were ready to rumble.

The opening notes of “Wrong” initiated a thundering singalong that wouldn’t let up for two hours. If some fans are still holding out on the new sound, it was hardly evident on this night. The ten tunes that comprise the new album have already embedded themselves in the audience’s consciousness, and even trickier songs like “My Childish Bride” had a backing choir of hundreds.

A mere week and a half into the tour, the band looks to have become fantastically comfortable with the new material. Undoubtedly, the riveting visuals playing on the screen behind them – an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of cityscapes and birds and trees and dancing skeletons and imploding buildings and children and old people and lingerie-clad women and cartoon demons riding motorcycles and stars and galaxies – helped with the acclimatization process, allowing the band to stay in the shadows and focus on hitting their notes without having to dance and preen at the same time.

As expected, Dope Machines in a live setting is a very different experience than it is through headphones. The electro-foundation is infused with powerful guitar riffs, melding to form the best of all possible worlds. The opening volley of “Wrong,” “One Time Thing” and “Dope Machines” is explosive, with all three elbowing their way into my already crowded list of personal live favorites.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event holds court at the Regency Ballroom. Photo by Glen.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event holds court at the Regency Ballroom. Photo by Glen.

“Time to be a Man,” the lone track that didn’t immediately strike a chord with me when the album dropped, achieved just that when witnessed in person. Stripped of radio polish and presented in much rawer fashion, I couldn’t help but succumb to its triumphalist charms.

I could hardly wait for the moody trifecta of “My Childish Bride,” “The Thing About Dreams” and “Something You Lost,” three highlights from the album that flow together so seamlessly I’m starting to think of them as one long masterpiece. Played in sequence, they made for a dreamy, atmospheric interlude unlike anything I have previously experienced at a TATE show, where the downbeat portion of the set (when there is one) traditionally consists of folksy ballads played on acoustic guitar during the encore. It was a very welcome addition, from Adrian Rodriguez’s brisk handclaps on “Bride,” to Mikel Jollett and Anna Bulbrook’s spot on falsetto harmonizing on “Dreams,” to Mikel’s chilling intensity on “Something You Lost,” which raised the hairs on the back of my neck in a manner reminiscent of the first time I heard “The Fifth Day” at Red Rocks.

The Dope Machines portion of the set came to a close with “Chains,” which was an utter revelation. The excitement of the crowd rose audibly as Anna reached for her viola for the first time of the night. The live arrangement has evolved significantly since I saw the second-ever live performance seven weeks ago in Vancouver. They have evidently decided to give the people what they want, which in this case is Anna wielding her strings throughout the song, including an extended solo in the bridge.

If “Chains” brought down the house, “Gasoline” immediately brought it right back up again as the band transitioned into the second half of the show. The video screen was shrouded by a black curtain and the stage bathed in hues of red, purple and orange, giving us our first clear view of the musicians. Freed from their appointed stations, the energy rose even further; it almost felt like we were back at the start of a whole new show.

That energy never flagged once through the eight songs that closed out the main set. After ripping through “Happiness is Overrated” and “Changing,” Mikel called an audible, leading the band into “Change and Change and Change and Change,” though the setlist called for “Numb.” While the crowd as a whole seemed less familiar with the Songs of God and Whiskey number than they had been with Dope Machines, I hit the roof; “Change” being my favorite track from the acoustic album and the one song I was desperately hoping would be played. Another checkmark on my TATE bucket list.

The ferocious pairing of “Papillon” and “Welcome to Your Wedding Day” led into the always spellbinding “Sometime Around Midnight” and “All I Ever Wanted,” after which the band exited for a well-earned breather. Upon their return, we were treated to a lovely rendition of “Elizabeth,” which ensured that all five studio albums were represented on this night.

On the day I received that fateful phone call, I felt the need to do something to express my angst to the world, but we weren’t quite ready to share the news with the masses. So, without explanation, I posted some lyrics on Facebook that captured how I was feeling at that moment:

And it comes like a punch
In the gut, in the back, in the face

And so it was fitting that this most cathartic of concerts came to an end with “All At Once” – and with it, the momentary release of five months of anxiety and anguish and exhaustion and fear.

My wife’s final words to me before I left home yesterday morning were, “Have fun. Let yourself forget about everything for a day.” And while I had no doubt that a very fun time was in store, the latter part of her wish seemed unlikely at best. I haven’t forgotten about everything for five minutes, not since that phone call on October 28.

But as I gaze at the clouds beneath me from seat 19C on the plane that is taking me back to Real Life, the highest compliment I can pay The Airborne Toxic Event is that they played some songs and managed to get me to forget myself for a while. These days, that is no small feat.

Addendum:

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there was a person of note in attendance at the show: Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. The man has good taste.

Setlist

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic EventGlen 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.

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Comments
  1. Kara says:

    Lovely, heartfelt review. I loved every minute and I, too, was thinking that the crowd was with the band wholeheartedly for every song, no matter the unfavorable opinions I have read of Dope Machines.

    Although I am not currently going through anything similar to what you are now, I have in the past, and I can absolutely agree on how essential music is to get us through and keep us going. And there is no stress relief like jumping and screaming and sweating with 1,000 fellow music fans in a fantastic venue.

    I loved seeing Mr. Wozniak clutching his vinyl copy of Dope Machines and waiting to meet the band. Does his second tweet mean he is a new fan? I can’t tell.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks Kara. The crowd last night was amazing! As for Mr. Wozniak, I read his second tweet to mean that he has seen them previously at the same venue. But I could be wrong. Either way, pretty cool that he’s a fan!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jcstoller says:

    This is such a beautifully written piece, Glen. We’re all cheering you guys on. You and Christie are inspirational, and it’s an honor to know you both. As for The Woz, he’s been an Airborne fan at least since 2011. He was definitely at the second Fillmore show, Reno and Sacramento in the summer, the holiday show in SF that December with Death Cab… I remember fans reporting running into and chatting with him. Yup, big fan. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. lzakov says:

    Amazing and heartfelt review Glen. I always love to read what you write and this time was no exception. Especially considering that I was there last night. It was great to meet you finally before the show and wish we could have talked longer. But maybe I should have got there earlier lol. I feel for what you and your family are going through so much! But I’m so glad you were able to get away from reality for that 30 hours to attend this show. I feel like every Airborne show I attend is the best ever and this was no exception. The crowd was amazing!! And Mikel sang from the heart like I’ve never seen him before. Every word he sang was sincere and I could feel his emotion. And when a fan after the band gave me Steven’s guitar pick since “she already had one” and then hugged me cause she could see what that meant to me…my night was made. I need to meet more Airborne fans because they are amazing people. Thank you if you are reading this!! You made my night!! I’m looking forward to seeing them one more time on Tuesday in San Diego before they head off to Europe.!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kara says:

      lzakov, that was me who gave you the pick and the unsolicited hug! Sorry, I was caught up in the moment. I’m very glad to see you weren’t offended. 🙂

      That is so cool you are seeing them again in San Diego. Have a great time!

      Liked by 1 person

      • lzakov says:

        Omg thanks so much Kara!! You are the sweetest!! And please don’t apologize for the hug!! I was in the moment too! Love this band soooo darn much!! 😄 Hope to see you at another show someday

        Liked by 1 person

    • It was so nice to meet you Lara. Hopefully next time we meet up I won’t be on such a ridiculously tight schedule. It would be fun to do lunch or something. Have a fabulous time at your next show!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Susan says:

    Lovely piece. Congrats on enjoying yourself for a day. You deserve it.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Angela Fuller says:

    Glen, I am so happy you got to leave the pain behind for a few hours and enjoy the band that keeps us together. As I’ve written in my pieces here, cathartic is the only word to describe TATE when you’re going through something so terrible such as cancer for us. Their songs kept me smiling, dancing, and mostly crying through my treatments, but like I wrote, their music is that best friend that is always there for you in your direst of times. I’m also happy to see that Becca is doing better during her treatment, and is continuing to kick cancers ass!! Stay strong my friend. Dance, smile, dream, listen and cry while TATE brings you through your troubles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Angela – and thank you for your inspirational example of how to fight through this with courage. When I was posting your articles, I had no idea that we’d soon find ourselves in the same boat. It’s a shitty boat to be in, but I’m glad there are people like you that we can share it with.

      Like

  7. Angela Fuller says:

    I’m always here for you!

    Liked by 1 person

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