It’s been a big year for the Airborne Toxic Event. The LA band released their second album, All at Once, this past spring (to some mixed reviews) as a follow up to 2008’s self-titled debut. The first album became sort of an instant classic to the many fans who identified with singer/guitarist Mikel Jollet’s anthemic lamentations over love lost and drowning one’s sorrows. There’s no sophomore slump with the new album, which has enabled the band to headline shows with their set of wide ranging and dynamic material.
This show is a homecoming of sorts, with the band headlining LA Weekly’s “LA 101 Music Festival” to cap off their American fall tour. Delta Spirit plays first but their 7 PM start time proves too early for most to catch. The venue formerly known as the Universal Amphitheater is still only sparsely populated when venerable alt-rock band Built to Spill hits the stage in the 8 PM hour. Doug Martz and his band have a great guitar-driven psyche sound but the material here seems a bit on the droney side, failing to ever really ignite the crowd. “You Were Right” and “Distopian Dream Girl” come close but the band was a late addition to the bill, so there’s not many of their peeps present. It’s a similar scene for the Tokyo Police Club , who have a pleasant enough sound but fail to get anyone out of their seats.
The entire vibe changes when the Airborne Toxic Event hits the stage. The crowd is up on their feet and there’s an immediate crackle of energy and anticipation in the air. The vibe is sparked higher by the presence of orchestral accompaniment and what looks like a small choir of Navy girls to help the band out for the beginning and end of the show. The stage is also adorned with trees and a giant eagle, both imparting the specialness of the event.
The band opens with the new album’s title track and it’s a dynamic performance to kick off the show. The band’s sound has always been a bit orchestral thanks to violinist Anna Bulbrook, and the extra musicians here only enhance the sound further. This continues on “Half of Something Else”, with Jollet emoting deeply and Bulbrook shining on violin. “Wishing Well” is another early highlight with Bulbrook delivering a violin solo that meshes gorgeously with the orchestra. The set keeps picking up steam with “Happiness is Overrated”, a rocking tune that highlights Jollet’s gift for blending heartfelt self-deprecation with infectious melodic hooks.
Guitarist Steven Chen, bassist Noah Harmon and drummer Daren Taylor rarely draw attention to themselves, but the trio’s tight chemistry is what enables the band to add in extra parts in seamless fashion. There’s not many rock bands that would sound this good with an orchestra behind them, nor that have the songs to make it work. But then this is all part of what has made the Airborne Toxic Event one of the most promising new bands to come onto the scene in the past few years. The orchestra and choir depart for the middle section of the show but the energy wanes not a bit. Catchy tunes like the older “Does This Mean You’re Moving On” and the newer “Changing” have the crowd grooving out, as the band’s songwriting and musicianship continue to impress.
“Welcome to Your Wedding Day” is another standout track from the new album, where Jollett and company take a chance to vent. Jollett introduces the song by noting that it’s about the bombing of an Afghan wedding party by US forces in an accidental predator drone attack in 2008. It’s a dynamic rocker that shows yet another dimension that makes this band special, the all too rare dimension where pop rock musicians aren’t afraid to speak out about the senseless state of warfare that plagues the planet.
The orchestra returns for the breakthrough hit “Sometime Around Midnight” and helps the band conjure an epic performance. The deeply emotional song about seeing a recent ex-girlfriend at a bar with someone else is a pretty powerful tune to come along the pop rock circuit in the past decade. This perhaps explains the shrieks that respond to the song’s intro. The song is a modern day masterpiece and the orchestral backing takes it to an even higher level of sonic grandeur
Jollet seems like a truly down to Earth artist who takes nothing for granted, taking a moment to say “what an incredible privilege it is” to play for the audience tonight, before leading the band into “Innocence”. The crowd claps along to the intro, before the full band and orchestra kick in again for another majestic performance.
Jollet goes solo acoustic for the beginning of the encore on a rare performance of “The Graveyard Near the House”. The song features another heartfelt universal declaration from Jollet when he sings “It’s better to love, whether you win or lose or die”. The choir returns for “Missy”, with the much of the crowd singing along and Bulbrook dancing out front with a tambourine before the band segues into a rocking cover of “I Fought the Law” and then back into “Missy”. Jollet acts as band director, calling for solos from the bass, the horns, the strings, percussionists and the choir. It’s a classy way to acknowledge the extra help the band is getting, but then Jollett and company are clearly a classy crew.
The show ends appropriately sometime around midnight with the band and crowd being showered in confetti to emphasize the special nature of the evening. It was a little shorter than the band’s regular headlining set due to the festival scheduling, but no one in the house is feeling short changed by this fabulous performance.