The Airborne Toxic Event - Sheffield Leadmill
A breathless surveying of the sated, sweating room. A sea of hands, a clamouring tide of approbation, growing ardour borne of out of real conviction. Mikel Jollett stands in front of his band, turns and checks they're all as one, and sums up an evening that sees both them and audience connect somehow deeper than the manual would have you expect. "This has been some evening, yes ? Pretty f***ing good, yes ?" Oh yes. This, as she sang, is getting serious. Very. As suspected, The Airborne Toxic Event have begun to Mean Something of some magnitude to their growing fanbase. The last emerging band I saw so very deeply engage and captivate an audience in this way (no sign of the disinterested barfly tonight) was Arcade Fire. Uh huh.
Sheffield, once robbed of a date with TATE, hits the floor with a builder's appetite. This is the show postponed in May due to power failure. This rearranged date happens and happens. Tonight, as a unit, The Airborne Toxic Event sever all connection with anything vaguely measured or deliberate. It's such a gas, I spend most of the evening grinning like a fool. Playing with dazzling abandon, they (probably) lose a little precision but they gain enough electricity to save us should the grid let us down again. When I spoke to him last month, Mikel remarked : “ If something doesn’t happen it’s not rock ‘n’ roll. It’s visceral engagement. It’s this sense that it might go horribly wrong or the f***ing building might burn down or … who knows, there might be a f***ing riot ! That’s what makes it rock ‘n’ roll. That whole energy is the key to it – we don’t even care if we play in key half the time !” Check out these real, quantifiable moments : an extended 'Innocence', Mikel out on the front line prefacing their finest moment with a high wire act of stunning intensity, just him and guitar and the greatest leap of faith; the ‘front four’ all stepping back into line after 'This is Nowhere''s middle eight and hitting the mikes as one for a raucous "I got nothing to do but stare at these walls/And take some time to screw my head on right” ; Anna levitating during the final, shattering movement of 'Sometime Around Midnight'; Mikel halting the "And speaking of ..." intro to 'Happiness is Overrated' as the crowd takes over - "How the f*** do you all know that one ?" (Suggestion - talk to your 'people'. It's on your album, pal. Which we've been busy buying.)
Three new songs cement themselves to the canon. ‘Echo Park’, which they’ve been fine tuning for a while now, is sleek and lovely, replete with Anna’s Franki Valli “la la la”s and an opening line that succinctly crystallises the Jollett oeuvre : “Aw f***, I gotta get my head together.” There’s ‘A Letter to Georgia’ , which barely runs to two minutes and is so spare and beautifully featureless it’s barely there, a thrilling diversion for a band who specialise in frenetic and splenetic. But it’s ‘All I Ever Wanted’ that raises the most hairs. It’s the one track tonight that allows for the least amount of participation, less for its very newness and more for its inexorable, austere colouring. Lyrically, well, we’re back where we started, it seems : love gone (catastrophically, usually) wrong and let’s just rake over those coals one more time, eh, babe ? You could be forgiven for losing a little empathy with Jollett’s lyrical mainstay. Christ knows just how much absolution this public tearing away at his skin provides; he can’t have that much more relationship debris to slough away. If it wasn’t for the fact that this precise and unforgiving self-examination is leavened with such immaculately fashioned … well, storytelling, you could dismiss him as a whingeing old twat. You'd be a fool, mind.
Bar ‘Papillion’, which has to bow to the new stuff, they demolish the album. Opener ‘Wishing Well’ is immense, ‘The Girls in Their Summer Dresses’ is a rare moment of Airborne serenity, and ‘Gasoline’ leaves holes in the runway. An encore of 'Missy' puts a lid on it. Anna, of course, heads for the mosh pit with her tambourine and grown men think very, very hard about their girlfriend or wife stood right next to them. Mikel introduces the band in his mock Vegas showman way and they each noodle around on cue. (Honours go to Noah on bass for some dextrous fret-walking.) It (‘Missy’) careers from 'Smelly Cat' to 'Country Death Song' via an admirable stab at The Smiths' 'Ask' (for clarity, only the latter is actual and not stylistic.)
Once again, worth marvelling at just how briskly and efficiently, with nary a nod from the Groovy Gang, the LA quintet continue going about razing UK venues to the ground. Do they not have (American) homes to go to ? (Probably not. They return again in November after circling the globe for a few more months.) Night after night, pissy dives succumb to The Airborne Toxic Event event. For those of us developing something of an obsession, it seems that it’s not just a year, but an entire genre, that’s been saved by an un-prepossessing bunch of friends from LA who just wanted to let people hear their songs. As Jollett finally pulls himself and his band away from the applause, he takes one more chance to sum it all up : “We’ve been the band, you were the audience, and this … this was ... something.” He’s not wrong.