"You just have to see her. You just have to see her. You know that she'll break you in two." Airborne Toxic Event (ATE) lead singer is intoning these lyrics as the band tears through radio-ready single, "Sometime Around Midnight." The image of a beautiful breakdown isn't anything new. In fact, lyrically, it dates back to Frou Frou's "Let Go" and the tectonic Garden State Soundtrack. It's the idea that there's clarity in pain. The idea that even our most bleak personal struggles have value. It's a theme ATE isn't afraid to take on. They wrote a whole record about it.
The band is enjoying their first New York sellout; crowd that is, not a seeming loss of credibility. Lead singer, Mikel Jollet pushes the bassist while their cute hipster multi-instrumentalist, Anna Bulbrook bounces around the stage like a sprite who had Leslie Feist as a high school guidance counselor. By the end of the night, she'll end up in the crowd with a tamborine twirling around and turning the end of "Missy" into a complete blow out. The crowd is on board even through a relatively tame first half of the set list.
Jollet makes joking comparison between Silverlake in LA and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Their parallels are obvious and Jollet wants us to know that any competition between the two is uncalled for. "I heard Silverlake and Brooklyn were in a fight ... but that ends right here." The band then tears through, "This Is Nowhere," their best live track and a song that completely sums up the experience of bands "mortgaging their futures." Jollet made the same comment at Pianos a month ago. I could hear him say it again and it's not repetitive if it's still true.
The band closes with "Innocence." It opens in near silence as Jollet approaches the microphone and is barely audible. Someone in the crowd is on a cell phone and you can tell. The crowd lets out a "shhhhhh" and you can be sure that's the first time a Mercury Lounge crowd has shushed someone. But that's the level of engagement here. We're waiting for the band to level us with their finishing kick and no one is going to ruin it with a "dude, alright, cool, we'll talk later." "Innocence" predictably and satisfyingly explodes and the crowd claps along. When Airborne Toxic Event tries to leave the stage, there is simply no way that is happening.
They come back with "Missy" and everyone goes nuts. It's not their best song but it is their last. And if there's beauty in struggling to make it as a band, and beauty in getting your heart broken, then there's beauty in departure. By tomorrow the band will be closing Conan O'Brien and from there they'll continue out on tour and by the time they're back in New York, it'll be the Roseland Ballroom. You're watching something blow up in real time. This band is going to be big. And you can't help but root for them.
"Come meet us. We promise we won't be assholes. The point here is for us to meet you," says Jollet. It's a populist notion and they mean it. They shake hands with strangers the whole way out. More than a month ago, I said this was the best American rock band on tour right now. I still mean it.