On The List :: Airborne Toxic Event @ The Met, Providence, RI [8.5.11]

(photo via)
All this is not as easy as it looks perhaps. Despite a successful second record, All At Once, charting at 17 on Billboard, with a single, "Changing", in heavy rotation at modern rock radio, Airborne Toxic Event look a little worn. Or maybe, "mechanical" is the right word. For a band that so relied on its mercuriality in 2008, a bizarre combination of surprise success and incredibly magnanimous band members, they seem, for lack of a better word, rehearsed. Singer, Mikel Jollett will later reflect on this grind of being a touring musician, about being far from home and playing too many shows (a worthy footnote: this is one of the most prodigious acts in American rock at something like 200 shows a year) a comment made not to engender any specific sympathy but, rather, to explain why this night ended up turning out so well. He looked exactly at the back of the room and uttered one of those life affirming platitudes that sounds as bullshit as it is completely true, "Nights like this remind you why you do it." This time he's right for all of us.

This is not one of those narratives where we find a band saved by its fans or, as the first paragraph may have mistakenly implied, a band worn down to its dull edge finding some last great moments in front of an admittedly enthusiastic crowd. Airborne Toxic Event will get on their bus and play another show, their music will be licensed in television and movies, they will play late night talk shows, and they will still manage to be the same nice people they were on their first tours at their first shows. In short, they will be fine. But it is a story about degrees. In this case, those small degrees between a live concert being great and being mediocre. Over the long haul, two albums, nearly four years of touring, Europe and back, distinctions like these are achingly slim as the band took the stage, playing "All I Ever Wanted" and loose version of maybe the single biggest rock song of 2011, "Numb".

The set found its legs in the middle, with bassist Noah Harmon upping his intensity level on "Tokyo Radio", a bonus track from All At Once that sounds better live than it does as a fuzzy addendum to the deluxe version of the record. The main set closed with "Something New", the stomping latest single, "Changing" and the band's seminal thesis song, "Sometime Around Midnight". The audience matched this succession of upbeat cuts, on board and singing nearly every lyric, including a guttural screaming of, "I am a gentleman" during the pre-chorus of "Changing". Jollett moved to the edge of the crowd, all of us yelling now, a portent of the singer himself spilling into the audience during the encore.

After a quick trip back stage, the band returned, mostly wearing the t-shirts of opening band The Drowning Men. TATE played classic closing song, "Missy" only stuffing an medley of classic songs in the middle, featuring "I'm On Fire", "I Fought The Law", a song Jollett dedicated to, "that fucking racist cop", and a faithful cover of Johnny Cash's, "Folsom Prison Blues". The closing song would be the eponymous first track off their second album, "All At Once", one of those songs about getting older, becoming something else, and living under the specter of evaporating time. But, Jollett reflects first, telling us it is nights like this that make it worth it. This is not about saving a band, for they don't need to be saved, but it is about remembering why this is so cool, when it has been so cool for so long and started to feel like something else, something granted, given, an "of course", repeated stimulus dangerously recast as a numbing agent.

But despite the band's lyrics at the beginning of the night, the ones about wanting to be numb, all of us will leave in a different capacity. In a wasted, somewhat forgotten section just north of a medium-sized New England city, a crowd packed an old factory for a rock concert and a band found new energy in their fans. I suspect they do this most nights, or maybe only on the good ones, transcending a practiced series of moves, the sublimation of songs they've played maybe a thousand times, and finding something new and important in something old and tiring. Or maybe Jollett says this in every city and every crowd finds it a unique commentary on their supposed uniqueness. But having seen this band enough now, it seemed that something a little special happened with the crowd at The Met. It was only a few degrees above everything else, just a shade, but these are the few degrees that matter.

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