I was thinking, while stuck in standstill traffic on the Tobin Bridge, just ahead of the standstill traffic on Storrow Drive, that if the Pope had included Boston in his U.S. visit, I would probably be having no trouble whatsoever getting to the show. Indeed, with all the hand-wringing over logistics for New York City and Philadelphia/Glenside, all the closed highways, roadblocks and massive crowds, the only traffic clusterfuck ended up being in my hometown, on a busy but not unusual Friday night in Boston. It was bizarre. Between Boston Calling at City Plaza, Frank Turner at the House of Blues and good lord, the Red Sox at Fenway, I never stood a chance.
Despite the odds stacked against me, I did finally make it to The Airborne Toxic Event’s third Orpheum Theatre appearance. There was WFNX’s Miracle on Tremont Street in 2008, when they opened for Franz Ferdinand and the audience was completely mystified, sitting totally still while Mikel jumped on one of the empty seats and tried to rouse them, Iggy-style. Then there was their own headlining show in 2011, the evening after The Drowning Men were hit by a drunk driver and spent the night as guests in Airborne’s tour bus. That evening, as tired as they all were, was filled with heartfelt poignancy. Airborne has been all over this town, performing in clubs and theaters, at radio stations, in an art gallery and a record store and a hotel suite, at Irish pubs and outside at City Hall, in what feels like a long, drawn-out residency. After two joyous and decidedly scrappy shows at the Paradise back in March, it made perfect sense that they should grace this uber-classy and legendary stage once more.
What you give up in terms of sweaty sticky floor dancing you more than gain back in sound quality and grandeur. It’s fun and intense to see them in an intimate club setting, but this world class band truly deserves to be on a proper stage, and their music seemed to expand majestically to fill the spacious, acoustically sweet Orpheum Theatre. Yes, we all classed it up. Due to a sudden major upgrade to my seating assignment (thanks concert buddies; you know who you are) and not having perused and contemplated the set list beforehand, “A Letter To Georgia” as a show opener caught me completely by surprise, in absolutely the best way imaginable. It may have been just 80 fans who got to experience The Private Shazam Show, but the two shows leading up to it (plus the one that followed) most certainly benefitted. “Georgia,” “The Thing About Dreams” and “This Losing” were delightful additions and gave Airborne the chance for a little extra rehearsal ahead of performing those special songs for discriminating palates. These are quieter and incredibly sweet moments in the band’s repertoire, except that this particular version of “This Losing” had what we’ll call the “angst ending,” which is neither quiet nor sweet. It’s in fact rather gut-wrenching, in a good way (though likely not for the narrator).
If New York City is an important market and a magical place to see Airborne, then Boston is akin to a family gathering. For Anna, the Boston native, it literally is that, with her folks religiously in attendance. But for the entire band, there’s a relaxed and comfortable feeling of familiarity even in a formal setting like the Orpheum that makes for a unique warmth which permeates the entire evening.
Again, I was taken by the enlightened pairings of songs that wove together so beautifully. This evening, it was “Half of Something Else” and “The Thing About Dreams” that seemed amazingly made for each other. A few special mentions are in order. “Dreams” is a very special song for me, and it was simply gorgeous this night, with Steven playing these exquisite piano flourishes while Anna provided backing vocals and what I’ll call “cosmic drones” on a baby synth. Yes, that’s the technical term – baby synth. So pretty. “Wishing Well” was an especially lovely version, with Mikel’s piano, Anna’s viola and Steven’s EBow on top of Daren and Adrian’s driving rhythm. And speaking of Adrian, he did a jamming bass solo in there which was quite wonderful from my up close and personal vantage point. In addition to admiring his new haircut and funky chops, I was able to really hear him play (which hasn’t always been the case in every venue). This beautifully composed song, as did others like “Poor Isaac,” “All I Ever Wanted,” “Midnight” and “All At Once,” greatly benefited from the Orpheum’s pristine sound. “California” was another selection that sounded rich, warm and magnificent in that special setting.
“Pursuit of Happiness” continues to be the Airborne song that Kid Cudi happened to write, and there’s something about Boston and The Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love.” Stephin Merritt and the crew are from Boston, which may be part of it, but I seem to recall at least two onstage marriage proposals that happened around this song. Suffice it to say it’s become something of a tradition for Airborne to perform it here. It’s a local audience favorite that’s always rewarded with a reverent singalong, and predictably, it sounded fantastic. This song always makes me smile, since Mikel, sans guitar and earnestly singing with his arms at his sides or his hands clasped in front of him, puts forth the vibe of a nervous schoolboy reciting a poem in class. To which all I can say is, “A+.” And I would be perfectly ok with “All At Once” replacing “Missy” as a standard show closer, as it’s such an epic experience at either side, beginning or end.
Airborne shows for me are always deeply satisfying on a cellular level, like a full body blood transfusion. Not that I’ve ever had one, but I imagine that’s what it must feel like, albeit with a really great soundtrack. On this electric early autumn night in downtown Boston, it was no exception.
Rumor has it that later in the evening, Mikel ventured down the alleyway to the street for the traditional Orpheum meet & greet, but I had a short night and a long day ahead of me that involved a birthday breakfast for my dad in Connecticut, a date with a very crowded Tappan Zee Bridge in upstate New York, an audience with the Pope in Philly and a pair of rock ‘n’ roll shows in a secretly hidden village in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ok, I might be kidding about one of those.
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.”