Airborne Toxic Event and me. A love story.

5th November 2011, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

“This band means everything to us, its pretty much all we’ve got”

Every time I’ve seen The Airborne Toxic Event, singer Mikkel Jollett has said this towards the end of the gig.

If you’ve never seen the band then you may well think “Yeah, that’s bullshit” and I can see where you’re coming from – and I guess it has probably become an integral part of the show, like when Bruce Springsteen asks Miami Steve what time it is.

But you get the feeling that he means it.

The Airborne Toxic Event first came to my attention in November 2008 when they did a UK tour covering 30 gigs in 30 nights, including the more well-travelled cities but also places like Yeovil, Derby, Fife, Aldershot, Barrow In Furness, Dundee.

I’d be hard pressed to even GO to 30 gigs in 30 nights, even if they were all round the corner and I didn’t have to work.

I saw the band three times on that tour at their London residency, at gigs promoted by the excellent Club Fandango. (check out the video diary with a slightly bemused looking Steven Chen (guitar and keyboards) coming to terms with the UK)

Their first album had gotten a grey market UK release, forty minutes and ten tracks of sheer rock’n’roll genius, not a superfluous note or a wasted word.

The buzz got louder as to what a great live band they were. The crowd was bigger for each gig, and what a show they put on! In the tiny back room of the Dublin Castle in Camden they pounded out their songs of doomed love and big hooks. It was the closest I will ever get to seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Stone Pony, New Jersey.

And on the third night, when the singer jumped into the crowd for a bit of that old rock’n’roll down with the people stuff, he ignored all the adoring twenty-something girls, stuck his arm round my shoulders and the mike in my face, and I did the best I could to remember the words to “Gasoline”… Proud moment, although the cynical me did have room for the thought that he may have been trying to recreate the famous cover shot to “Born To Run”, and I was the only big fat brown man available.

Great band, great set of gigs.

So then through a series of personal mishaps on their part and having to leave the country for a while on my part (don’t ask), I went through 2009 and 2010 ATE-less. They cancelled a European tour in 2009 owing to ill-health and a couple of UK gigs too and I thought, well, that’s that. They’ve missed the boat now. Great band, fantastic album, at least we have the memories and they didn’t last long enough to get crap.

Early 2011. Back in the UK again, bit out of touch with music, scanning the TV listings and there on Sky Arts is a concert by The Airborne Toxic Event. At Disney Concert Hall (check name). Its lovely shot in B&W (check) with a choir and a marching band! There’s new songs! And a cover of the fabulous Magnetic Fields’ “The Book Of Love”!

Further investigation reveals a new album “All At Once” and, glory be, a UK tour ! They’re doing  a week of gigs in London, revisiting the smaller venues where they made their name locally. These gigs are sold out but I manage to get tickets for an intimate sit-down gig at the Drill Hall via Facebook.

And hearing them for the first time in stripped-down acoustic mode, its like listening to the songs again for the first time. They make so much sense sung quieter and less frenetically, and Mikkel’s extensive between-song yarns flesh out the story, which is, basically, that if a girl called Catherine hadn’t dumped him, all the great songs on the first album wouldn’t have been written.

Thank God for bad relationships. Happiness is overrated. At least when it comes to artists writing decent songs. But that’s a topic for another day…

So I seek out a ticket for any of the gigs in the rest of the week. I’m prepared to pay quite a lot.

Somebody on the fans forum has a spare for the Kings College gig and wants it to go to a fellow fan. I insist on payment, she refuses, so I end up buying her a drink in exchange for the ticket.

The gig is amazing, better than I have ever seen them play.

So up until April 2011 I had seen The Airborne Toxic Event five times for a grand total cost of £15.  Plus a pint of Guinness.

The ticket for Shepherds Bush Empire costs me more than the other five gigs combined – but the band is worth every penny, and then some.

A word about the songs. Lets be clear, there is nothing that original here. The Airborne Toxic Event are alchemists and mixers in the same way Blur and Oasis were. Mikkel knows exactly how to write a song, with the little pause before the whole song goes crazy – It is the utter conviction with which they play that makes the difference, its something that Springsteen has (obviously) and Dexys, and the Proclaimers, and the Hold Steady. None of those acts were particularly innovative, but they all bring a new freshness to the musical styles they plunder.

The stagecraft is superb – you do get that with American bands, they tend to be about putting on a show and less about being “too cool for school” than their British equivalents.

This is an excellent desktop backgroundmade by a far more dedicated fan than me and including some great shots of the gig, and a setlist also. Thanks Erfy. If that IS your real name… 8=)

No “Book Of Love” tonight which is a shame. They covered it before Peter Gabriel, and better than he did it. But check out the Magnetic Fields original , it’s the best version of the three.

And as for the encore… continuing the Brooce theme, they do an extended version of their chugging country rock anthem “Missy” incorporating snatches of “I’m On Fire”, ”I Fought The Law” and “Folsom Prison Blues”.

And its that triumvirate of Bruce, Clash and Cash that defines them, their influences and where they want to be.

There’s a genuine bond that exists between band and audience. I’ve never seen anybody else actually come down off the stage within five or ten minutes of the gig finishing for meet and greets, autographs and pictures. They do give the impression that they actually care about that stuff, and I’m still idealistic enough to think that’s important.

A quick word about the support band, Leeds’ The Chevin. Pretty standard anthemic indie but played well and vigorously and with enough in the songs to hold promise of things to come.

I reckon the best thing for them would be NOT to be hugely successful until the second album at least, lest they find themselves on the Big Pink path of premature expectation and end up writing a second album identical to the first.

In conclusion, as I type this I have by my side half a drumstick that drummer Daren Taylor tossed into the crowd at the end of the gig. Which I then got him to sign afterwards. I joke that it will be up on ebay tomorrow but we both know that I shall be treasuring it forever, along with the pick belonging to The War On Drugs and the setlists from The Broken Family Band. That’s right, setlists plural.

I should be way too old to get excited by that sort of thing – but there’s something about this band that turns me into a teenager again.

And ain’t that the whole function of rock music?

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