Review: Airborne Toxic Event has stories to tell
REVIEW BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve been missing out on The Airborne Toxic Event — now one of my favorite bands, after a classic, dynamic concert at Hawaii Theatre on Saturday night. I don’t know what the next musical trend will be, but if the world is ready again for music that beautifully tells stories and paints emotions, music that is not detached, ironic or coolly cruel, it may have a standard-bearer in TATE.
The crowd was sprinkled with fans who knew the band’s songs well and who shouted and danced and threw their hands in the air for songs they loved. I wasn’t one of those people. I was only familiar with the band from some YouTube videos and a couple of encounters on Pandora. But it didn’t take long to reel me in.
From the start, I was attracted to bandleader Mikel Jollett’s literary credentials and the serious tunefulness of the band’s songs. On stage, those promising elements were blown up and handed over with a flourish.
Jollett was earnest and charismatic, repeatedly thanking the audience (“Mahalo!”) and professing his gratitude for being able to bring the band to Hawaii, striding up to the front of the stage to eye all parts of the room and even jumping off stage at one point to venture down an aisle, singing, and then stride across a line of chairs up near the front to get next to fans.
He was protective of the audience, gesturing to us to stand up and dance after a couple of people were asked to leave the aisles. The first songs were structured as straightforward rockers, but Jollett was in fine voice. As the show went along, the music and vibe became more complicated and sophisticated, and Jollett’s voice became more ragged, as if to prove he was giving it all he’s got.
On top of his shout-outs, Jollett broke away from the music to make a derogatory comment about former President George W. Bush, announcing, “I’m against war. And I’m for peace!” but also singling out the frontline soldiers who served in Iraq for praise and respect.
The Airborne Toxic Event is a five-piece band, influenced considerably by the sound of Anna Bulbrook on viola and keyboard. There are two guitars (Jollett and Stephen Chen, looking good with his spiked hair and black jacket), bass (Noah Harmon, who at one point played his bass with a bow for moody effect), drum (Daren Taylor, who founded the band with Jollett), keyboard and strings. The music is straightforward, but not simple. At different times, I heard traces of U.K. rock (a bit of U2, no doubt, and Jollett’s resonant voice made me think of Echo and the Bunnymen), punk (near the end of the show, the band played “I Fought the Law (and the Law Won),” a ’60s song made popular again by the Clash), and good old-fashioned, soaring classic rock, a la Bruce Springsteen (they covered The Boss’ “I’m On Fire” during Saturday’s show).
The music and songs were proclamatory — there was theater in this event, and all of the band’s five members played their parts as if quite aware an audience was expectantly hoping for satisfaction.
“The Airborne Toxic Event.” That phrase conjures up a rather bleak dread and finality. In real life, the band is romantic — passionate and if not optimistic, at least open to the prospect of connecting with others. The words and music, by turns lovestruck and sympathetically regretful, give the impression that human bonds can be a sort of redemption.
“Sometime Around Midnight,” a 2007 song that was one of the first to be written and performed by TATE, is a good example of what the band can do. It opens with the sound of Bulbrook’s melancholy viola, then Jollett and the band jump in with a word-painting of an encounter with a lost love at a bar. Painstakingly, the lyrics evoke this ethereal woman in white, and the renewed pull of her presence on the man, and all the while the music builds.
As the pace peaks, things take a turn for the worse: “She leaves, with someone you don’t know / But she makes sure you saw her / She looks right at you and bolts.” And then the music oh-so-slightly pulls back, but still comes at you headlong, fueled by momentum. And Jollett sings his heart out, evoking a man who cannot let go, singing, “You just have to see her, you just have to see her / You know that she’ll break you in two.”
Ah yes, it’s poetic to conjure loss. And with Jollett, Airborne Toxic Event is a lyrical, poetic band, with soaring music and a knack for connecting with listeners.