It’s a Sunday night in Austin, yet La Zona Rosa is completely sold out. The Airborne Toxic Event’s popularity in Austin has been surging ever since a triumphant performance before the then unknown band’s surprisingly large convention center crowd at the 2009 SXSW Music Festival. The band delivered more of the same at the Austin City Limits Festival that fall and then graduated to a coveted Friday night set at Stubbs BBQ during this year’s SXSW festival. As singer/guitarist Mikel Jollet would note early in the show, tonight’s performance is the band’s first headlining show in Austin that’s not part of a larger festival.
The room is mostly full for opening act Voxhaul Broadcast, who seem like a good match. Both bands are out of Southern California and Voxhaul Broadcast share a somewhat similar vibe with a melodic, layered indie rock sound and heartfelt vocals from singer/guitarist David Dennis. The band opens with “Leaving on the 5th”, drawing in the crowd with the energetic sound of the lead track from their Timing is Everything LP. “Loose Change” scores as well, a tune that Dennis says is about “getting free”, tapping into the ever-liberating power of rock. Bassist Phillip Munsley II pumps it up with fat low end riffs while Dennis adds guitar lines drenched in reverb for a big sound. Munsley and drummer Kurt Allen make a formidable rhythm section, and the band maybe just needs to conjure some more memorable song hooks to get to the next level.
The energy of what that next level feels like is apparent from the moment the Airborne Toxic Event hits the stage with “Numb”, from their new sophomore release All At Once. It’s a millennial zeitgeist anthem that finds band leader Jollet and company tapping into the universal desire to drown one’s emotional sorrows in an alcohol induced buffer. The song has several great melodic hooks to indicate there will be no sophomore slump for these still rising stars. The band goes back and forth between both of their albums all night, with the new material holding up quite well to their highly successful debut LP. The new album is easily one of the year’s top releases so far.
“Wishing Well” features violinist Anna Bulbrook adding some great melodies on top of the band’s dynamic sound. The new “All I Ever Wanted” builds off this, with Bulbrook’s viola riffs blending with the guitars in a skillfully layered fashion to build another great song. Jollett notes how the success of the band’s first album and subsequently lengthy tour meant he had to sing about his ex-girlfriend every night for two-and-half years, which he says was “awesome” (dripping in sarcasm). But releasing those emotions through song is one of the great cathartic powers of rock ‘n’ roll, and Jollet’s ability to do so has clearly tapped into a wide cultural vein.
“Half of Something Else” is another big winner from the new LP. It’s got a sonic vibe that seems to mirror the band’s breakthrough break-up hit “Sometime Around Midnight”, but it’s appropriate since the song appears to continue the tale from remorse to acceptance. Jollet and Bulbrook’s harmonies take the song even higher as the energy in the room continues to surge.
“Gasoline” pours more fuel on the musical fire with a bouncy up-beat number that gets everyone dancing, as Bulbrook and her viola shine again on a sweet jam. The show starts to feel like one of the year’s best, due to the consistently high level of the songs and energy shared between the band and audience. Jollet shows he’s really feeling that energy when he climbs up on the ceiling pipes by the stage during “Something New”, and sings from the tiny speaker platform. It’s the first time this reporter has seen anyone pull such a stunt at the venue, as Jollet further endears himself to the crowd.
The new “Changing” is another crowd pleaser, with melodic mid-tempo riffs on a cathartic number about moving past “buckets of rain”. Jollet introduces the next number by saying that European fans had asked if it contains an anti-American sentiment, but no, it’s merely speaking out on some anti-war sentiment. The combo of the “The Kids Are Ready to Die” and “Welcome to Your Wedding Day” is another of the show’s many highlights, with Jollet venting some anti-war anger as the band slowly but surely builds the sound from a simmering intro into a raging rocker.
The now classic intro from “Sometime Around Midnight” brings am instant reaction of gratitude from the crowd. The deeply heartfelt tune about the pain of seeing your ex out at the club with someone else clearly strikes a deep chord in the audience. The song builds with an almost cinematic quality, as layer upon layer of sound mirrors the turbulent emotions of the lyrics. Bulbrook’s viola lines and Jollet’s vocals both tap the heart on one of the most memorable songs of the young century so far. It doesn’t close the set though, as “Innocence” follows. It makes a great denouement with Bulbrook’s viola lines on the soft intro continuing to tug at the heartstrings, before the band amps back up for the rocking main section where Jollet sings “I lost my innocence today”, closing the set on another cathartic high note.
The encore section is a series of triumphs. “Does This Mean You’re Moving On” starts it off with a rousing rocker about the continuing bourbon-filled trials of trying to get over that special someone. Jollet goes into the crowd to sing the song, driving the energy still higher. “Missy” follows, an upbeat danceable number where Bulbrook playfully dives into the audience for a short bit of crowd surfing before being passed back to the stage for a soaring viola solo. The band then pulls a surprisingly pleasing card from the jamband deck by seguing into a higher energy arrangement of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”. This then segues into a raucous Clash-style cover of “I Fought the Law”, into some of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”, before finally landing back into “Missy”.
Jollet then says “This is about all of you”, to introduce the soaring title track from the new All At Once LP. It’s a vibrant number that taps into the modern generation’s desire of wanting something more than this crazy mixed up society seems to offer. With their ability to tap into universal emotions on everything from breakups to wanting to change the world, the Airborne Toxic Event have established themselves as one of the 21st century’s most promising bands.