Anna Bulbrook and The Airborne Toxic Event tackled beloved rarities during the private pre-show at the Keswick Theatre. Photo by Julie.
The funny thing about revisiting the past is that it’s never quite the same as you remember it. But that’s ok. There are vestiges of what you recall, enhanced by new memories and new realizations.
For one, was the Keswick Theatre always that difficult to find? The last time in 2010, in the midst of The Airborne Toxic Event’s All I Ever Wanted tour to promote the DVD documentary and live album, The Calder Quartet was in tow and I arrived with my frat-boy concert buddies, Matt and Drew, elegantly guided directly to the door by Matt’s smartphone GPS. Alone this time and sans smartphone, I stopped at a yard sale for directions and clumsily stumbled my way into the quaint little Keswick Village.
Classy and a bit trashy, the Keswick was and still is charmingly run down, having seen better days, but in its state of disrepair, it makes an ideal if unlikely rock venue. The couple of streets that make up Keswick Village feel like a magical kingdom that time left behind. Even the over-attentive ushers and usherettes seem like a curious throwback to the 1950s.
When I ambled up to the theater, there were already a few people and a “Line Starts Here for Shazam Pre-Show Party” paper sign. The day was already surreal, what with my 4 hours of sleep back in Boston, a dazed bagels and lox breakfast with my dad in Connecticut, vague memories of a very large and very crowded bridge, a blown-off Pennsylvania Turnpike toll payment, a cryptic journey through Philadelphia suburb back roads and oh right, that Shazam contest. Well-meaning, clumsily executed, and I was very glad I had made it into the Top 20. I’ll never understand how, as it seemed I got more emails bounced back to me than I actually sent, but who am I to question such extraordinary things?
There were more pleasant meetings with familiar faces and familiar Internet handles, as the most dedicated of Airborne’s East Coast fan contingent converged. It felt like some sort of rock ‘n’ roll Survivor episode, seeing who had made the final cut. Who among us had endured the treacherous jungles of Shazamland to emerge triumphant?
This very special private show felt like a well-kept secret, but then again, so did the evening show. About 6 miles south, millions of people were greeting Pope Francis, and here we were, 80 of us being ushered in to a holy gathering of an entirely different kind.
Others have described The Shazam Show in loving detail, so what I’ll say is this — beyond giving the fans a chance to see their band up close in a different light, performing less frequently heard songs in an informal setting, it gave the band a chance to see, up close, some of their biggest fans. It felt very intimate and very real, more living room party than stage show. Bill Barrish, the Shazam grand prize winner, chose to share his prize with the other contest winners. His amazing generosity made a big impression on everyone, including Mikel, who said “Oh, you all picked songs? That was awfully democratic of you. That makes me proud to be in a band that has fans that would share. You’re all such nice people listening to such sad music.” As fate would have it, within that 12-song set, every Airborne album was honored with at least one selection.
There was a real spirit of fan community. Whether it was the communal selection of the setlist, Lalena periscoping the entire set to the many fans around the world who wished they could have been there or the friendly chats before and after the two shows, these signs of friendship and shared experience were truly heartwarming. It’s this type of community that will sustain Airborne’s fan base through the band’s quieter times, and it will sustain the band as well. Their following might be significantly less than what it was in the heady days following their debut, but it’s staunchly devoted.
The evening performance, in many ways, was no less magical than the private show earlier. The energy and love was palpable and the band performed beautifully, despite it being the third night in a row. The audience was a good deal older than in either New York City or Boston, with children in tow. This too felt like a memory, a snapshot of Airborne’s fan base when I first started following them. Despite Mikel’s comment that their typical fan is “a 16-year-old honors English student, a couple in their 30s, or an idealistic college kid who wants to be a novelist,” the Keswick that night was a strong reminder of how this band’s appeal cuts across multiple generations.
Assigned seating meant a rare 6th row vantage point for Julie at The Airborne Toxic Event’s evening show. The experience was no less stunning.
From my sixth row vantage point, I witnessed an incredibly powerful performance with beautiful, rich sound in a venerable old theatre. As much as all fans love to be up at the front of the stage, there are things you miss up there. For one, the breadth of the entire show, audio and visuals, with a full experience of band/audience symbiosis. The intended mix of the instruments through a state-of-the-art (or even less than state-of-the-art) sound system, rather than from, at least partly, the band’s monitors. The full audience reaction, physical and verbal, to each song. Heady. Overwhelming. Awe-inspiring.
Those who weren’t at the private show still got to hear “A Letter to Georgia” and “The Thing About Dreams,” in addition to glorious Songs of God and Whiskey selections “Poor Isaac,” “Cocaine and Abel” and “Change and Change and Change and Change.” Dope Machines was well represented, with “One Time Thing,” “Wrong” and “California,” in addition to “Dreams” (plus “Hell and Back,” if you count that one as a DM song). “What’s in a Name?” and “Elizabeth” were welcome additions from too-often-overlooked Such Hot Blood. “Elizabeth” in particular is always deeply appreciated, as it has become an audience favorite.
Yet another blast from the past was The Philly Hiss, in its place of birth. “You guys are so silly,” said Mikel. But I remembered, as did many others. Five years later, we all remembered that silly little joke and we all remembered why we love this band, so very much.
Mikel Jollett leans into “Wishing Well.” Photo by Julie.
A few songs in, it became difficult to stay confined in the assigned seats. When ushers tried to keep people from moving into the aisles, Mikel stepped in to say it was ok, and after that, the front of the theater filled with enthusiastic fans and indeed, it was then a full-blown rock show. Albeit a very classy and sophisticated one.
In a slight variation from 2010, the after-show reception was held not in the lobby but in the thankfully mild evening air in the parking lot behind the theater. One by one, our hosts (and hostess) came out to meet and greet the 50 or so revelers. Many selfies and more formally posed photos ensued, autographs on various materials were signed, there were brief discussions about what songs were played and not played at The Shazam Show, there was an overheard conversation with Mikel and some fans discussing the meaning of “The Fall of Rome” and an admiring fan asking him to write out lyrics, quite a few of them, for a tattoo design.
I have no memory whatsoever of the hours between 1 and 3 am, or of checking in to an upstate New York hotel a few hours before dawn (though I think there’s a tweet to confirm this). All I recall is feeling lighter than air and amazed at the rejuvenating powers of truly wonderful music.
1) Airborne fans will go to the ends of the earth for their favorite band (or at least to the wilds of a strange little retro village).
2) Sitting six rows back from the stage can at times be even more extraordinary and overwhelming than leaning against the stage or barrier.
3) If you ever find yourself in a ‘50s-style diner, you should order the fries and not the side salad.
4) A particular fan’s dedication to a band can be measured by the length of the lyrics she is willing to have permanently tattooed on her body.
There are changes in the autumn air,
I can feel it rustling among the leaves
Can we honor the past, respect its importance
and then let it go?
As dear as it all was, and remains, in our hearts
in time, familiarity becomes a kind of comfortable prison
that prevents us from growing and moving beyond our safe boundaries
and keeps us from realizing that there are no boundaries
but only the limitations we place on ourselves
It is the fear of change.
But the fear of stagnation is stronger
and the discomfort of standing still
becomes a great motivator
to move us past our familiar surroundings
into the unknowable but beckoning future.
Thanks so much, Glen, for this wonderful opportunity, and hello to everyone I’ve met on the road. I hope to see you out there again. Soon.
Photo Gallery – Shazam Show
Photo Gallery – Evening Show
Setlist – Shazam Show
Setlist – Evening Show
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.”