The Airborne Toxic Event - Manchester Deaf Institute
"Welcome to the Saturday night campfire singalong!" Mikel Jollet leads his band onstage and beams at the prospect of what is billed as a 'Special Acoustic Performance'. We are all, of course, tails a-wagging at the return of The Airborne Toxic Event to these shores, not least because they've pitched up in an unexpectedly tiny venue. But, no denying it, we would much prefer to see them test the capability of the national grid rather than swoon to their troubador side. As it turns out, nothing to fear. After token acoustic presentation of set openers 'Wishing Well' and 'This Losing', Jollet straps on his scruffy black Gretsch to loud cheers. There is work to be done here, he seems to say, so let's do it properly, eh? Oh yes.
After virtually living here in 2009 ("Do they not have homes to go to?" asked a fellow TMF-er as I continued to follow them around like a sick puppy), this past year has been odd, if not empty, without them. Squeezing just four UK gigs into a brief US/UK jaunt to promote new live DVD All I Ever Wanted, they're playing venues they outgrew long ago. Jollet apologises if people had to go via Ebay and suggests a bigger hall might have been in order. 250 boos indicate otherwise. And while their last tour of the UK saw them fill the roomy Ritz just up the road, the Deaf Institute is no less characterful, with its wallpapered stage and raised pews at the back. It certainly offers what might be the last chance to see them up close in this way. Album number two will surface early next year. On the evidence so far, a plunge into obscurity is unlikely.
So, a chance to try out the new stuff on the hardcore. Lapped up, of course (as it has been, to be fair, on previous tours.) 'Numb', 'A Letter to Georgia', 'Wedding Day', 'All For a Woman'. Some of these are new new and some have been teasing us for a year or more now. They all point towards a reshifting of the TATE template into something altogether more elementary and other-worldly. The new songs seem to forgo the Stooges grooves that buzz beneath the likes of 'Papillon' and 'Gasoline' in favour of sleeker lines. 'All I Ever Wanted' rattles aside a riff that recalls Joy Division's 'Shadowplay'. If you discovered that Berlin-era Bowie had become a tour bus staple, you'd nod knowingly. Whatever, these songs sound ready to fly. Album of the century and all that; gamble family members on that outcome.
But that's to come. Let's take one last look at TATE pt.1. While the first set features half a dozen new songs and a couple of old, they return after an intermission to set fire to the rest of the first album. For the record, a grabbed setlist tells me they play everything bar 'This Is Nowhere'. 'Missy' is again Violent Femmes on Lucozade - Springsteen's 'I'm on Fire' is grafted on along with something that I can't quite place. Damn. (Johny Cash?) 'Happiness is Overrated' is picked up by the crowd and Jollet hands over the mic. During Anna's intro to a devastating 'Sometime After Midnight', her violin cuts out and without missing a beat or even looking at her bandmates she turns to her keyboard. (Cue impressed applause.) 'Innocence' is epic, epic, its deranged sprawl shattering; the floor on fire, the walls a blur.
Mikel Jollet’s end of gig musings are as pithy and involving as ever. He laughs as he recounts how so many people tell him how they leave the gigs feeling energised and revived. Which confuses him because “the songs are so fucking sad!” But he says he’s settled, unavoidably maybe, on the view that it’s the collective experience that fires the audience. I ain’t arguing. But what that kind of insight does is register Jollet’s emerging position as, ultimately, the carrier of people’s hopes, fears, dreams. There is a sense of deep trust being gained. His audience are placing their faith in someone who's taking up the baton of a grand tradition, the front line chronicler, a storyteller able to transform the greyness of the humdrum, the wreckage of shattered lives and the agony of love in tatters into something heroic and worthy and poetic. By making it clear (inadvertantly – Jollet remains unspeakably modest and unassuming, almost unable to believe he even has an audience ) that he’s up for fulfilling a role like that, he’s staking a claim for land that don't come cheap. The stakes, no doubt about it, have been raised. Place your bets.