Posts Tagged ‘This Losing’

Anna Bulbrook photo by Curtis Buchanan, Distinct Daily

Anna Bulbrook photo by Curtis Buchanan, Distinct Daily

By Glen

One year ago today, The Airborne Toxic Event hit the stage in Santa Ana, CA for the one and only complete album performance of Songs of God and Whiskey. No such excitement this year, unfortunately, but it’s been two months since our last Toxicity, so I figured it was time to catch up on a few things.

Coming Soon: Toxic History – The Book

Yup, it’s been painfully quiet around here lately, and it’s not just because The Airborne Toxic Event is way off the grid at the moment. All of my spare time has been directed towards another TATE project: Toxic History – the book!

That’s right… our massive trip down Airborne Toxic memory lane is coming soon to a bookshelf near you. I am just in the process of polishing up the manuscript and preparing to publish with Lulu. Much more news coming soon. In the meantime, if you want to catch up on the blog series, you’d best do it soon. Most of it will be going offline soon, in preparation for the book launch. The last few chapters will be saved for the book – we’ve gone as far as we’re going to go with publishing it here on the blog.

All of this means that things will probably be even slower here at TIN over the summer, unless of course the band kicks back into action. But stay connected to us on social media (Facebook|Twitter|Instagram), where, over the next year, we’ll be celebrating memorable dates in Toxic History.

Stay tuned for more!

Getting to Know Anna Bulbrook

We all know Mikel Jollett’s back story, but one thing that struck me in the process of writing Toxic History is how little is out there about the other band members, at least in comparison to the lead man. But Anna Bulbrook has been doing her best to remedy that, with a couple of illuminating features.

First came Distinct Daily, with an artsy but very informative video feature on the violinist/keyboardist/tambourinist/guitarist/singer/songwriter/feminist ambassador/festival organizer. Shortly thereafter, Anna wrote her own story for 21cm. Together, these two excellent pieces chart Anna’s journey from classical music student to music dropout to Kanye West support to The Airborne Toxic Event, and finally to the front woman of The Bulls.

Anna sums up her journey so far thusly:

So, at 33, I’m technically the worst violinist that I’ve ever been in the traditional sense but the best musician that I’ve ever been. I’ve been humbled in the process more times than I can count, and I’m sure I’ll be humbled a few thousand more – but I can’t wait to find out where music will take me next.

We can’t wait, either.

Drinking the Lemonade

One other quick Bulbrook note… One of the biggest musical happenings this spring was the release of Beyonce’s Lemonade. Shortly after the album dropped, Anna revealed on Instagram that she contributed viola to one of the tracks on the record. A scan of the album’s extensive credits reveals that she played on the first song, “Pray You Catch Me.”

Toxic Gold

As always, we’ll round out Toxicity with some video goodies. First up, while Anna is talking about herself, here’s an interview she did for Girl Rock Nation around the time of All At Once:

And now a couple of thrilling performances by The Airborne Toxic Event: the potent punk rock of “The Kids Are Ready to Die”/”Welcome to Your Wedding Day” from Roxwell, and an acoustic “This Losing”/”Sometime Around Midnight” combo from Live Daily Sessions, circa 2008.

GlenGlen 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.

Steven Chen, Mikel Jollett and The Airborne Toxic Event brought their frenetic energy to Boston for the third time this year. Photo by Julie.

Steven Chen, Mikel Jollett and The Airborne Toxic Event brought their frenetic energy to Boston for the third time this year. Photo by Julie.

By Julie

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).

Adrian Rodriguez: Coming into his own with The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Julie.

Adrian Rodriguez: Coming into his own with The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Julie.

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.

Photo Gallery


JulieAlong with writing regularly for This Is Nowhere, Julie publishes, 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.”

Like a bow on strings: Anna Bulbrook of The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Ryan Macchione, 2015.

Like a bow on strings: Anna Bulbrook of The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Ryan Macchione, 2015.

By Colleen

Life is so busy now, writing has become a lot like the friends I think about often but with whom I never get to spend time, lingering like you do when the connection is so strong you don’t actually want to leave.  I can’t linger in creativity like I used to, when there are deadlines and turn-around time at work, and naptimes that seem to shorten in duration every day.

Music is played in the background like an afterthought, not for studious consideration in the days before Toddler Life.  It’s hard to focus on the meaning of a lyric or a chorus when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder and making sure your kid doesn’t hurt himself while he moves dining room furniture around.

The cognitive awareness of his needs and anticipating his next move is so mentally draining, by the end of the day I have little energy for anything other than mindlessly checking Facebook status updates and scrolling through pictures on Instagram.  Writing stuff down – as much as I love engaging in the wordplay and emotional connection through art – just seems like another task.

But I’m not complaining.  I love this life, and if it means never writing another word, I will be okay.  Of course, nobody is asking that of me, but that’s just how much I enjoy what I do.  Being a mom trumps everything.  It’s an honor and a gift not afforded to just anyone.

I don’t go to shows like I used to, nor do I have the time for diligent attention to a certain beloved band’s activities, but the love that I have for music has been transferred and repotted like a houseplant I love to nurture.  Only now can I share it with the little person in my life who demands all my time and attention.  “Let’s enjoy this together,” I think, and I will put on music.  Let’s dance and learn to sing.  Let’s learn some new words and learn the lyrics.  Let’s nurture this love of music, because it is very well in your DNA – not just from me, but from generations before me and your dad – your grandparents, your great-grandparents, and so on.  This is your heritage only we can show you, so let’s start with the music I love and grow from there.

For reasons only he knows, the Airborne song “Missy” has been on repeat in our house.  Except, when he asks for it by name, it’s “Mimi.”  He likes the elongated notes of the lyrics “Just as long as I’m never aloooooone” and “I’d follow you even if it was wrooooonnng” and has started cutting his teeth literally and figuratively on those notes, attempting to sing them on key.  He loves the portion of the song from the All I Ever Wanted DVD with the girls’ choir singing along, and he lights up when Dad plays the song on the guitar for him and we all join in.

Of course, this isn’t the only song he likes, or the last (“Hey Jude” is another favorite, the ‘nah-nah-nahs’  being solidly in his vocabulary), but this song and this band, this is a love that we share together, as mother and son, and family.

Today he asked for “Mimi” just like he does every day, so I put on the DVD and we watched it together until he started rubbing his eyes.  I scooped him up and put him to bed, letting the DVD play with no audience until I returned to the living room to turn it off.  I have seen this show and this band now dozens of times, and these songs are as familiar to me like folk songs in the country of my heart, but I sat down anyway and watched for a moment since the need for me to look over my shoulder was sleeping soundly in the other room.

That pause in a parent’s life, when the dust settles for a moment and you can see the hands in front of you and your plans in the distance, as well as the life you’ve left behind, all came into focus in that moment watching Anna pull the bow across her viola during “This Losing.”

For as often as I’ve heard this song, the goosebumps still rise with the memories right behind them at the surface, of where I was four years ago when these songs were playing in the background like an afterthought.  When I was pregnant and living a distracted life, and expecting it to turn out differently.  Inside my body was a little person developing hair and teeth, limbs and hands, feet and fingers.  And ears.  In the background of my life, I was hearing this music, and so was he.  And though our time together was so excruciatingly brief, we, too, had shared this music together.  Mother and son.  Family.

I have a couple painful anniversaries on the horizon this summer.  Birth and death, and the heartbreak and pain that surrounds them as thick as fog.  But intertwined in these memorials are anniversaries of first shows and concerts, first-time meetings of band members who had no idea their kindness meant so much, and all the love and compassion and connection I’ve received through music.  Of going on and living a life with purpose, and now sharing that life and music with someone else.  I couldn’t be more grateful.  And it’s that gratitude that pulls me through the pain, like a bow on strings.

When she’s not front row at a TATE show with a bird emblazoned on her face, Colleen can be found blogging regularly at These Stunning Ruins, where this post originally appeared. She and her husband have also been known to occasionally lay down a wicked Airborne cover.

Airborne Toxic Event tattooBy Melissa

I remember the first time I heard “Sometime Around Midnight.” I was driving home from Denver and I could barely make out the song on my cheap car radio, but I was instantly hooked. Years later, I still get chills when that song, or any Airborne song, comes on the radio. All their CDs are preloaded in my car and the majority of my time I am listening to them. In fact, I am listening to them right now.

I have been to nine shows all over Colorado since 2009 and I have had the privilege of meeting all the band members when they first started out. I remember thinking they were the most down to earth rock stars I have ever met. In fact, when my dad was getting a picture with Anna she kept asking everyone if they had seen her cousin, like we all knew him. I came out of the hall to get a poster from the fan table and there were Noah and Steven! They took the time to talk to me before the show, and I always try to stay after to talk to Mikel and Anna.

Over the years, our beloved TATE has grown into such an amazing powerhouse of music. I have listened to each song and almost always am able to pick out a verse that I can relate to. In fact, I have a very unique tattoo on my back that shares lyrics from both “All I Ever Wanted” and “The Graveyard Near The House.” But I am writing this not to relate to a certain lyric, but to express how The Airborne Toxic Event has helped me through the hardest three months of my life.

The last three months I have been living in my own personal hell. I have been suffering from an unknown disease and doctors are lost in trying to diagnose me. I have become a sheltered form of myself, afraid to be around people and socialize in public places. I have lost a significant amount of weight and in three months I have been sent to the emergency room twice. It is hard at times, but I try to remain hopeful that soon we will figure out what is causing my symptoms and will find a cure…

One might ask, “Well that’s terrible, but how does it relate to The Airborne Toxic Event?” Well… in a very large way. First, I am reminded of Mikel’s personal struggles he has dealt with all his life. He doesn’t complain about his health issues, or the loss of family members; he uses that to make him stronger. For this, I look up to him as a role model on how I should live my life with this unknown disease.

The main reason that The Airborne Toxic Event has helped me occurred on a Thursday night in Denver at the Ogden Theater with my husband and all the friends I have made from shows over the years. There is something so meaningful in going to a concert and talking to others who have sang and danced and jumped alongside you at other shows. Before the show began, we traded stories of our meetings with band mates, showed off tattoos and tried to see what songs will be played.

The show on November 6th changed my outlook on my unresolved health issues. For a few hours I was able to forget all that has plagued me and I just danced, sang, cried (when they played “Duet” and “A Letter To Georgia”… How could you not!) and was overjoyed when they played “This Losing,” which a fun fact is that I walked down the aisle at my wedding to the orchestra solo from the All I Ever Wanted DVD. That was a very special moment for my husband and me. I was more myself that night then I has been in the last three months, and that is what TATE does. They bring this passion, energy and emotion to their shows that is unmatched. As I stated previously, I have been to nine shows, and I’ll go to ninety more if I have the chance. There is something so real about their performance.

Since that night, I have had a different outlook on my health. I no longer let my sickness control me. If I start to get sad or alone, I listen to a song from their amazing collection and I reminisce back to that night and remember how I felt and how important that feeling is.

Thank you, TATE, for making such a difference in my life. They play these shows night after night not because they have to, but because they are passionate for what they do. They show that passion with every show and for this I am truly grateful. They deserve every bit of success they have earned and more. I will always see them when they come to Colorado to experience pure magic and passion and will buy every record they create.

TATE fan MelissaMelissa lives in Colorado Springs, CO. When she’s not listening to TATE she works for Wounded Warrior Project. She’s a huge Airborne Toxic Event fan… obviously!

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event: Glasgow Garage, 2012. Photo by TATE fan Jennifer McInnis.

Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event: Glasgow Garage, 2012. Photo by TATE fan Jennifer McInnis.

By Glen

Ed. Note: Each Tuesday for five weeks, we’re gearing up for The Airborne Toxic Event’s upcoming residency at San Francisco’s Fillmore (Sept. 18-20) with a series of posts to whet our collective appetite. See last week’s post for 10 Highlights We Can’t Wait For at the Fillmore.

As a parent, I’ve noticed a disheartening phenomenon. It seems like the more I give my kids, the more they want.

You’d think they’d be grateful for what we work so hard to provide for them. And sometimes they are – for a few hours, or a day, or even a week. But inevitably there comes a day when they come home from school and tell me how their friend’s _______ is so much better than theirs, patiently explaining exactly why they need more.*

The Airborne Toxic Event can relate.

You see, no sooner did they announce their intention to play their three studio albums in full on consecutive nights in San Francisco than fans began to clamor for the b-sides, rarities and deep cuts that we desperately hope they’ll add to the agenda.

You’d think we’d be grateful for what the band is working so hard to give us: by my count, 11 rarely-to-almost-never played tracks from their previous albums, with the tantalizing promise of new tunes to boot. Add in the fact that new bassist Adrian Rodriguez has to familiarize himself with all the band’s material, new and old, and that some favorites will have to be rearranged in light of Noah Harmon’s departure from the group, and it’s clear that these five musicians have bitten off a lot as it is.

But, we fans are greedy that way. What’s better than 11 songs we never get to hear? How about 12, or 15, or 20?

In all seriousness, it would not surprise me or disappoint me in the least if the remainder of the set each night is filled out with familiar standards, and nary a b-side is heard. Any way you slice it, this is going to be a dream come true for any TATE fan.

But just for one day, I’m putting on my selfish brat hat and pondering my wish list. With apologies to “The Winning Side” and “Duet,” here are five songs I’d kill to see for the first time at The Fillmore.

5. A Letter to Georgia

“A Letter to Georgia” was The Airborne Toxic Event’s first true ballad – and the bar against which every subsequent one measures itself. Elegant and poetic, “Georgia” is an understated, underplayed fan favorite that occupies many Airborne enthusiasts’ live performance bucket lists.

4. Echo Park

If the band truly intends to plumb the depths of their history, they could take it a step further by pulling out this never-released fan favorite. Last played in 2012 at the legendary Wounded Warrior Benefit at the Troubador, “Echo Park,” would be a nod to the many long-time TATE fans making the pilgrimage to San Francisco – and an eye-opening revelation to newer fans who may not be familiar with it.

3. Wrong/My Childish Bride

“Wrong” and “My Childish Bride” are stand-ins for whatever new music the band intends to bestow upon us at The Fillmore. The previously performed “Dope Machines” and “California” would seem to be shoe-ins, but with a new album looming this fall, it seems safe to assume that more tracks will be unveiled in San Francisco. The band confirmed “Wrong” as a song title for Album 4 in a recent interview, while “My Childish Bride” was referred to by Mikel in an extended interview with Darren Rose Radio.

2. This Losing

Musically, “This Losing” is one of The Airborne Toxic Event’s most arresting compositions. And though it has been played more than most of their b-sides, I’ve yet to be in the right place at the right time to catch it. I’m not sure I will be this time, either, as it would require a major reworking without Noah, who teamed with Anna Bulbrook to create the signature symphony-in-the-middle-of-a-rock-song moment that makes this number such a standout.

1. The Way Home

I’ve written elsewhere about how much this song means to me personally: more than any other in the Airborne catalog, to put it plainly. I’m not expecting this never-before-played b-side to crack the setlist on Such Hot Blood night… but if it does, there will be at least one wildly ecstatic TATE fan in the house.

*Disclaimer: My kids are actually pretty awesome, and not at all as ungrateful as I’ve portrayed them here (usually). But you know… sometimes a writer’s gotta make a point.

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.

By Glen

Living in Canada doesn’t hold a lot of advantages if you’re a fan of The Airborne Toxic Event.

For one thing, if you reside anywhere other than Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal (and yes, there’s a lot more to this country than those four cities), there’s a good chance the band has never played anywhere near you. Fortunately, as a Vancouverite, I get my share of shows. But if I still called Calgary home, as I did for much of my life, the touring situation would be pretty bleak indeed.

For another thing, TATE merchandise takes freaking FOREVER to cross the Canadian border. I don’t know what it is about the Canadian customs system, but somehow my fellow fans in Switzerland and Germany received their Such Hot Blood vinyl a good two weeks before I did, though I’m a scant 3-hour flight from LA and they shipped on the same day.

But enough whining. It’s unbecoming, and we Canadians are nothing if not accommodating.

Besides, it turns out we have something the rest of you don’t: our very own Super Secret TATE Album.

The crazy thing is, I had no idea it was super secret. I assumed that TATE fans everywhere added iTunes Live from Montreal – The Airborne Toxic Event to their collection back on Aug. 3, 2010, just as I did. But I recently came to the sudden realization that, no, this is in fact a Canada-only treat: made in Canada, and available for purchase only in Canada.

iTunes Live from Montreal is a 7-track acoustic performance recorded in a Montreal Apple store; a setting which prompts singer Mikel Jollett to confess, “I love my iPod,” before sheepishly admitting, “I never thought I’d play a show in an Apple store.”

The show itself is a slowed down, stripped down affair, with arrangements similar to those featured in the first album’s acoustic version series. Several of the songs are downshifted slightly in tempo compared to the album renditions, which only serves to magnify the vocals.

Opener “Wishing Well” works particularly well here, Mikel’s voice containing just a hint of rawness. And then it’s straight into what was, for me, the highlight of the album when I first got it: “A Letter to Georgia.” Since this release preceded that of All I Ever Wanted by two months, this was the first version of the song I ever laid ears on, and though the later recording would surpass it, Georgia became a favorite on first listen. It was so unlike anything I’d previously heard from the band; their first true ballad, and a stunner at that.

That gift is followed by a trio of cuts from the debut album in “Something New,” “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” and “Gasoline.” Of these, it’s the latter that stands out, its energy leaping out of the speakers. “Moving On,” meanwhile, doesn’t quite pack its normal punch, with the vocals more subdued than usual and guitarist Steven Chen’s power chords missed.

Up next is “This Losing,” which to this point was known only as a B-side on the deluxe version of the freshman album. This recording functions as the closest thing to a bombastic version of the song that we’re ever likely to receive. Anna Bulbrook’s viola loses no urgency, however, propelling the number through its frantic highs and pensive lows.

Finally, the set closes with the crowd-pleasing favorite, “Sometime Around Midnight.” With quieter instrumentation and the pace dropped a notch, the song comes off more reflective and regretful than anguished and desperate, much like the acoustic video with which fans are no doubt very familiar.

All in all, it’s a shame this collection did not enjoy a wider release. Sometimes a TATE fan just needs to chill out with a glass of wine and some acoustic goodness, and iTunes Live from Montreal fits that bill nicely. Unfortunately, the difficulty of procuring it outside of Canada will likely relegate it to “great white whale” status, with many fans of the band unaware that it even exists.

For those of you outside my home and native land, I realize full well that, in extolling the virtues of an Airborne album that you may have no way of getting your hands on, I’ve subjected you to cruel and unusual punishment. To which I can only offer up that most Canadian of phrases: “I’m sorry.”

Purchase iTunes Live from Montreal – The Airborne Toxic Event

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic Event Glen 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.

Anna Bulbrook of The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by TATE fan Ryan Macchione.

Anna Bulbrook of The Airborne Toxic Event.
Photo by TATE fan Ryan Macchione.

By Glen

Ed. Note: This is the third in a six part series in which fans of The Airborne Toxic Event select their Top 5 musical moments of their favorite band member. Previous entries: Mikel’s Top 5 Vocals; Daren Taylor, the Ultimate Beat Keeper. Next week: Noah Harmon, Bassman.

Ask any fan of The Airborne Toxic Event what, on first listen, distinguished TATE from other bands, and almost invariably, it was a violin in a rock song.

Never mind that it’s actually a viola; most of our ears weren’t that finely tuned when we first heard it. But it’s been cited time and time again as fans have shared their stories here on This Is Nowhere: there’s just something about that instrument, seemingly out of place but ultimately oh so at home amongst the electric guitars, the drums and the keyboards that one normally expects to find in a sweaty rock ‘n’ roll club.

So too its classy, diminutive player may seem at first glance an odd fit, the lone female on stage with four rowdy dudes, some of them heavily tattooed and prone to hanging with bikers in their downtime. And yet, there’s something about the chemistry that just works.

It’s become the band’s hallmark: punk rock that veers towards the orchestral, so much so that many of their most heralded performances have come with the backing of a string quartet, if not an entire symphony. And yet even then, Anna Bulbrook and her viola never fail to command attention.

So in tribute to our favorite classically-trained rock star, here are 5 exceptional Anna moments.

5. This Losing

I always felt that, had it been included on the first album, “This Losing” could have taken its place alongside fan favorites like “Wishing Well” and “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” as one of Airborne’s great classics. As it is, we have to content ourselves with the occasional but very welcome live performance (I myself have yet to see it live).

The Airborne Toxic Event are masters of tempo. Yeah, sometimes they assault the ears for 3-and-a-half minutes, never letting up (see: “Papillon”); and sure, they’ve produced some truly heart-wrenching ballads (see: “Duet”). But where they really shine, at least for me, is when they take us on a musical journey through varied terrain, full of peaks and valleys, highs and lows. “This Losing” is just such a song, and it’s Anna and her viola that propel it.

Here, we see Anna at her most tender, and at her most frenetic. We see her on her knees, lost in the melody, and we see her seeming to tower over us, viola pointed heavenward like an arrow. And, in lieu of the guitar solo that a lesser band would place in the bridge, we see an unshaven bassist playing his guitar with a bow, huddled with a girl and her viola: a symphony hidden in a rock song.

4. Half of Something Else (Going the Distance Soundtrack)

More than any other instrument in the band’s arsenal (save perhaps for Mikel’s voice), Anna’s viola establishes mood. Pay attention, and it will tell you whether it’s time to celebrate or time to mourn; time to embrace hope or time to get lost in despair.

“Half of Something Else” was voted the fans’ favorite bombastic video, and it’s become an energetic live staple. But some fans remain tragically unaware of the exquisite acoustic version of the song found on the Going the Distance soundtrack. Stripped of layers of sound, Mikel’s voice cracking, the track bleeds brokenness. And it’s Anna who sets the plaintive tone from the outset, her melancholy viola marking out the parameters within which the song will run its course. When she takes center stage at the 2:11 mark, you can practically hear her instrument weeping.

3. Safe

Sept. 20, 2012. I’m in the 4th row at Red Rocks, fulfilling a lifelong dream, seeing my favorite band at my bucket list venue. Best of all, they are debuting new music from their hotly anticipated upcoming third album.

There will be no restraining my expectations on this evening. I expect one of the greatest nights of my life, and I have no doubt they will deliver. BUT… but. I have to remind myself of this one thing: Having already ruined me for other bands with songs like “Midnight,” “All At Once,” “All I Ever Wanted,” “Graveyard” and, most of all, “Innocence”… is it at all realistic to expect them to top those masterpieces? Is it even possible? And will I be disappointed if the new songs don’t quite reach those lofty standards?

I needn’t have worried. Because, tucked away in the middle of the set is a song that would become a new point of fixation for me in my ever-evolving Airborne Toxic Obsession.

After Steven opens with a quiet melody on the keys, the viola takes charge. Pensive at first, setting the stage. Increasing in intensity, growing urgent as the lovers’ discussion takes a turn for the serious. Breaking off as Mikel interjects. Everything.

And then – expectations smashed. Anna steps forward, but instead of raising the instrument to her shoulder as per usual, she leaves it hanging by her side. She leans into the microphone and sings. Solo.

Do you really want to hear that?
Why is everyone staring?
Were you happy? Were you honest?
Did you ever believe that any of this was real?

No. No I didn’t. Is this real? Ever since I’d first laid ears on her harmonies in the “Graveyard” bombastic video, I’d hoped that someday, Anna would be given more of a vocal role. The blend of her voice with Mikel’s is pure magic.

But of course, the song is only beginning. The viola returns soon enough, first revisiting the earlier urgency; then calming us, allowing us to breathe; and finally ramping up again, in tandem with Mikel’s furious guitar, driving us towards an aural explosion that finally gives way to the desperate plea: Just say it to me! I don’t care if you mean it.

But I do. I do mean it. They’ve done it to me again.

One of the few decent concert photos I've ever taken. Vancouver, 2011.

One of the few decent concert photos I’ve ever taken. Anna Bulbrook: Vancouver, 2011.

2. Innocence 

Let’s just get this out there, shall we? “Innocence” is the most outstanding piece of music I have ever heard. No other song can carry me away and drown out the world like this one (and believe me, with four kids and two too many jobs, I can use some drowning out once in awhile).

So why then has it taken me three months of blogging about TATE to dare touch this song? Frankly, I’m terrified that I can’t do it justice. I don’t have words to express how deeply this music moves me.

To me, in “Innocence” we see five musicians at the absolute peak of their powers, both individually and collectively. Regardless of which player I am wrote about for this series on the top five moments for each band member, “Innocence” was guaranteed to be on the list. In an 8-minute masterpiece, there’s room enough for all of them to steal the spotlight.

But for Anna in particular, this song is something special. It showcases her full range with the viola. At times it hums in the background, a steady tone underlying Mikel’s guitar and vocals (1:45). She combines with Noah’s bass to heighten the musical tension with a full 45-second instrumental interlude in the middle of the “Heaven is a Map” intro (2:35), serving notice that the band is in no hurry; this song will not be rushed. When the rest of the band falls silent, the viola remains, alone, somehow both adding to the peace and piercing it (3:57).

As the delicate strains of “Heaven is a Map” give way to the ferocity of “Innocence,” Anna disappears – not visibly (she’s clearly as entranced as we are, 5:24), but audibly. But when she resurfaces, it’s with another heart stopping solo that lifts the band to yet another height, if it can be imagined (5:44). From there, she’s omnipresent: head bowed, feet stomping, bouncing, rocking, whirling… and all the while, her insistent melody carries us along.

And then she’s on top of a speaker, delicately plucking the strings (7:49) as the band catches its breath for the finale: a spectacular assault that sees the high-heeled violist jumping from said speaker to stage, whereupon she attacks her instrument with a fierceness that proclaims: the classical musician has gone full-on rock chick, and she ain’t coming back (8:05).

She hogs the camera for the final minute; lost in the music, her performance is magnetic, and impossible to turn away from. And as the final note sounds, we are spent.

So how is it that my favorite song winds up #2 on this list? Well, #1 is pretty iconic…

1. Sometime Around Midnight

Could #1 be anything other than the opening bars of “Sometime Around Midnight?” For a great many fans, including me, they were the first notes we ever heard from The Airborne Toxic Event, and the only ones we needed to become forever converted.

Anna’s prologue to TATE’s signature song is simultaneously majestic and melancholy. It signals the start of an epic tale; the tone hints that it won’t be a happy one. And yet it also foretells a coming explosion: an explosion of emotion; an explosion of sound.

In concert, it’s the moment when anticipation reaches its apex. The preceding number ends. The band delays a moment to allow the noise of the crowd to die down (relatively speaking). The musician steps into the lone spotlight, assumes her stately position, raises her bow. The viola cries out, and no matter how many times you’ve previously experienced it, chills rip down your spine.

“Sometime Around Midnight” is a perfect song. Perfect lyrics, capturing an experience that’s been shared by millions, but never expressed with this eloquence. Perfect energy, music swelling and ebbing in lockstep with the mood of the storyteller. Perfect vocals, the singer straining to the point of breaking, just as the woman in the white dress would break him in two.

And, prior to all that, a perfect intro: one that defines not just a song, but the ethos of a band. A marriage of rock and symphony that is utterly unlike anything I’ve ever heard – and utterly captivating.

Purchase the Best of Anna:

This Losing
Half of Something Else – Going the Distance (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Sometime Around Midnight

Bonus: Anna talks about the trials and fun of being the lone girl amongst a gang of boys.

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic Event Glen 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.