Heading into Riot Fest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Yes, I knew the songs The Airborne Toxic Event usually plays during festivals. I knew there would be lots of energy and possibly some climbing from Mikel. I knew that Anna might dive into the crowd, tambourine held aloft. Except a show of this magnitude was something I was only familiar with from second-hand accounts; it would be the first time I would see it with my own eyes.
The last time I saw The Airborne Toxic Event live was on their very special Dope Machines Tour. Of course, the two shows would be different from each other. I was going to Riot Fest alone, while at the DM tour I went to the show with my girlfriend, Sarah. That day had been a cold one, but waiting in line for five hours proved worth it. We secured front row spots up against the stage, Steven gave Sarah a set of autographed guitar strings, Mikel and Anna played right in front of us, and we met everyone after the show. We had an incredible time that day. It was, for us, the best show ever. With my last experience being that, dare I say, perfect, I naturally had trepidations about their next visit to Chicago.
Douglas Park had become a mud-covered field due to Friday and Saturday’s rainy weather and the heavy foot traffic brought on by Riot Fest. Sunday was spared from any more rain, but the previous days’ conditions had left more mud than grass on what was once a very green park. Luckily, being at the stage early, I was able to avoid the muddy parts and pick an excellent viewing area. The only challenge would be standing there for seven hours in what was the warmest and sunniest day of the weekend. My spot was front row, between what would eventually be Anna’s set up and the middle of the stage.
There were some great performances by Kevin Devine and The Goddamn Band, Andrew McMahon and The Wilderness, and Manchester Orchestra prior to The Airborne Toxic Event taking the stage. Their sets were what carried me through the eight hours of waiting for TATE. Daren was the first of the band to show up, playing his drums and even Adrian’s bass for soundcheck. After a while, Steven arrived to set up his guitar and various pedals. Adrian was next, followed by Anna. Mikel was last to arrive. The stage crew then set up two fog machines by each side of the stage. All that was left was waiting for the scheduled time.
The band approached their instruments to a flurry of applause and excitement. Wasting no time at all, the band began with “All At Once.” The crowd loved it; a powerful opener to let the crowd know this isn’t just any rock show.
The next song was introduced by Mikel as being about “one of those nights” where he would stay up listening to Modest Mouse’s Third Planet. He mentioned how he looked forward to seeing them perform later tonight. He proceeded to play the opening to “Wishing Well on the keyboard.” Mikel’s vocals throughout the show were clear and strong; perfect for people to truly hear the lyrics and feel the weight of every word.
Next came “Changing” and its clap-along, which was brief, but effective, and primed the crowd for the energy of the next song, “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” The song began with an Airborne drum collaboration between Daren, Mikel, and Adrian. It was something I expected, but loved to see nevertheless. The crowd was more than willing to join the fun, as Mikel instructed them to jump “like a bunch of fucking monkeys.”
It was during “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” that Mikel’s festival antics showed up once again, and he found a great place for climbing right next to one of the fog machines. Finally seeing this in person, I was quite impressed by the altitude he reached. No video or picture can capture just how high Mikel gets when he’s climbing. While clinging to the structure, he commented how he doesn’t like weed, but that he’d like to get high with Snoop Dogg, who would perform on the adjacent stage an hour or so later. This was greeted by laughs and agreement from the crowd. Mikel finished the song up there and began climbing down only when the sounds of “Hell And Back” and the audience clapping filled the air.
One of the most fun parts of Airborne’s shows is the singalong to “Hell And Back,” and this time was no exception. Everyone in attendance enthusiastically tried their best to repeat the “gibberish” Mikel was singing. This was probably the best audience interaction of the whole day.
Next, I expected “One Time Thing,” since I had seen the setlist ahead of time. However, at some point, the decision was made to play “Happiness Is Overrated” instead. The intro will forever be one of my favorites, and Mikel made it even better this time around by holding the “always” note for what seemed like an eternity. The song got the audience very excited, to the point where one Riot Fest attendee tried to crowd surf, but was promptly escorted out by security.
Airborne’s next song was “All I Ever Wanted,” a song the crowd loved and I’ve always adored live. Amid the sound of Anna’s violin strings and Mikel’s voice, I found myself immersed in the lyrics and the power of the music. It was a moment where that song became even more meaningful to me, because it made me think of the one person in the entire world I wanted to share this moment with. I was moved by the heart with which it was played by every member of the band.
After the emotional rendition of “All I Ever Wanted,” a cover of “Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi followed. The song was enthusiastically received by the Riot Fest crowd, and the majority were familiar with the lyrics. Steven’s guitar during the cover was incredible.
Anna’s playing shone brightest when she played those first notes of “Sometime Around Midnight.” The massive crowd cheered when it began. Again, I found myself feeling more emotional over this song than I expected. Mikel’s delivery of, “You just have to see her, you just have to see her, you just have to see her” resonated very strongly with me.
Once the final notes faded away, the band broke into the beginning of “Missy.” It’s always been a great song with which to close the night. The instrumental break was accompanied by Anna’s stage diving. And with those last hard strums, strikes of the cymbals, and audience cheering, The Airborne Toxic Event’s set was done. Although my last encounter with The Airborne Toxic Event had been special in a multitude of ways that no other show could match, Sunday’s set not only managed to thrill me, along with the enormous Riot Fest crowd, but also affected me in a way I did not expect.
Heartbreak has always been a prominent aspect of Airborne’s music. Until now, I could not entirely relate to that concept. On this night, however, when the band played “All I Ever Wanted,” and again during “Sometime Around Midnight,” the words and the sounds and my longing for Sarah’s company left me feeling something that can only be described as heartbreak. Not the same heartbreak of love lost, but that of one whose love is visible and tangible, yet out of reach. I was singing the words of those songs for her. And I wasn’t the only one affected by the performance’s emotional content; people from the crowd had been brought to tears by Airborne’s tales of failed romances.
This is perhaps what The Airborne Toxic Event does best. The band evokes so much feeling, and poetry, and life in their music that it brings forth those emotions that are bubbling under the surface within an individual. It can be rage against that one ex that tore your heart into a million pieces, or the fear of not becoming who you want to be, or that family member that you still mourn losing, or that feeling when you can’t be with the one you love despite how badly you both want it. In the midst of enjoying a rock show, The Airborne Toxic Event brings you moments of pure human connection, moments in which both the band and the listener are at their most vulnerable. Despite the large setting of a festival, The Airborne Toxic Event managed to capture the same intimacy of those small venues and brought it to Riot Fest. That intimacy and vulnerability are what makes their performances indelible. While the Dope Machines show remains my favorite apart from the rest, this Riot Fest show proved to be just as special and moving and exhilarating as all the other times I’ve seen this extraordinary band perform.