Live Review: The Airborne Toxic Event at London Shepherd’s Bush Empire – 7th October 2013

By on Monday, 14th October 2013 at 2:00 pm
 

To walk into the imperious surroundings of London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire is to walk back 150 years into the heyday of music hall; the embellishments of the theatre acting as dressing to the waxen seal of approval granted by the now world renowned venue to the next generation of musicians. And, here it was futuristic folksters The Airborne Toxic Event, who lie somewhere between a cyborg Levellers and gooey American indie pop, chose to touch base with their faithful British fanbase and unveil their most mature and multi-faceted album to date in ‘Such Hot Blood’.

Greeted with the passion of a London crowd that had been chomping at the megabit for their somewhat adopted offspring to return, the Californian five-piece careered into old favourite ‘All at Once’ like someone had pushed Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen and Mumford and Sons into the Large Hadron Collider. Without so much as a “hello”, their unique brand of foot-stomping post folk had the audience cooing like 2000 proud parents. This opener, a favourite single from 2011 critically acclaimed album of the same name, was a taster menu for everything that was about to follow, encompassing aspects of style, stagecraft, dynamics and instrumentation that would be sculpted throughout the set.

The first 30 seconds or so of ‘Numb’ was blighted by withering feedback (on the top level of the venue at least), which meant as normal service resumed, the more syrupy, Americanised side of their style was heightened. But, this ‘Big Bang Theory’ bubble quickly burst as vocalist Mikel Jollett delivered a barrage of obscenity and attitude; a trait that also elevates them above their barbour-bearing folk brethren. Third track ‘Wishing Well’, the first ever penned by the singer, provided further means of character definition. Undoubtedly a folk heavy version of the original, the lyrics speak mainly in cliché but were delivered with such emotion it was clear whatever principles the band were founded on meant much more than they were then able to express. Three studio albums later it would appear they have found clarity and purpose in that voice, perhaps dispelling a few of their own demons along the way.

The aptly titled ‘Changing’ was the first instance of musical chairs that night, with all musicians seemingly equally proficient on each others’ noise makers. A funked up drum/synth intro that plunges into heavy power chords, viola player Anna Bulbrook – who has until now been playing the trequartista in tying the midfield rhythm section to the attack of vocals and guitar – moved onto the keyboards for a swinging number with less pace, but an infectious chorus. ‘Gasoline’ sticks at a similar speed, but has a rolling thunder bass intro, as well as a traditional structure and vocal melody that wouldn’t seem out of place at a Flogging Molly concert. Ever the showman, Jollett enlisted the crowd by inciting stereographic cheers, before holding an inhumanely long falsetto in ‘Happiness is Overrated’. The song generated the biggest chants so far, but when the levels are stripped back it seems the appeal of The Airborne Toxic Event is that they write massively hyperbolised versions of songs you could easily imagine yourself humming down the street.

Not to be outdone, drummer Daren Taylor (a largely unsung yet immensely cohesive element of the show) stole his first solo of the night accompanied by Jollett playing the cymbals with his hands. Elsewhere, Bulbrook was shaking her tambourine from bassist Noah Harmon’s shoulders. The whole spectacle was like stumbling into a barn where a group of farmhands had cracked into the farmer’s super-strength moloko. But, that’s how folk should be – in one form at least.

There’s nothing new about bands trying to butter up a London crowd. In general, we are far too cynical to pay credence to the host of miscellaneous ‘firsts’ that bands claim to have had whilst in the city. But, there’s something compelling in The Airborne Toxic Event’s claim. Having added the influences of The Stone Roses, Joy Division and The Smiths (to name but a few) to their sound during their time here, they were rewarded with their first record deal in the city, and now describe it as their own “music Mecca”. ‘This is London’ is a fitting tribute from their latest album; a ballad with an air of nostalgia that was belted out with the affection of Alicia Keys towards New York in the warbling ‘Empire State of Mind’. After the flattery had fluttered away, ‘Safe’ was a return to scheduled programming with a delicate, ‘Tubular Bells’-like piano intro and lonely viola lines. The cyclic chorus was a real hook, and as Jollett rammed his hollow body guitar into his hip with legs akimbo, he couldn’t help look a little like an epic bandleader in the form of a Chris Martin or a Springsteen.

‘Sometime Around Midnight’ gave the set somewhat of an injection of pace that built into ‘All I Ever Wanted’, a tight track off ‘All at Once’ that was a real showcase of Taylor’s skins skills and formed the end of the set proper. They returned with ‘The Book of Love’ (no, not Dusty Springfield’s aural caramel of an almost identical name, the Magnetic Fields’ version), and it was visible that they had given almost all they physically had. Luckily, the song was a laid back, acoustic number that took Jollett down to the barrier once again as the mirror ball began to fire beams of light from above his head. ‘The Graveyard Near the House’ followed a similar path, but with all bar Jollett and Bulbrook exiting the stage for an intimate few moments. The male/female vocal exchange epitomised love divided, like the lowest ebb before resolution begins in a romantic comedy.

Penultimate track ‘Timeless’ began with the kind of deliberately restrained groove seen on The Clash’s ‘Straight to Hell’ (or MIA’s ‘Paper Planes’ for all you punk noobs), and took the award for ‘Chorus most likely to haunt you until 5 AM when you actually consider ripping your own ears off just to get some rest’. The song – about the elation and feeling of invincibility that purportedly come with meeting an adequate mate with which to continue the species – is a strikingly apt analogy for the band itself. In that 90 minutes alone, they exhibited a willingness to look backwards to traditional western folk styles, as well forwards to a more digital, synthetic age, whilst also existing as a stalwart of the present.

Jollett took to the mike to offer a very personal thank you to the fans before they wound up for the evening, explaining that he had always been struck by the ways in which the same album can be interpreted as something to either celebrate or mourn to by different people. Considering the circumstances that persuaded him to put pen to paper for the first time, you can see why this is an attractive proposition. One of the most accomplished vocal melodies of the night with its Simon and Garfunkel-esque meanderings, ‘Missy’ began with real energy as Bulbrook and Harmon launched themselves onto the barrier. However, in one of the more questionable incidents of the night, this then morphed into Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ – an act that I can only assume is a real killer across the pond. Star-spangled cynicism grew as the first chords of The Boss’ ‘Born in the USA’ rang out, but at least Jollett framed this as a protest song, and again the comparisons between the two blue collars was evident. The band finally pulled the plug by doing something that Americans do better than anyone, turning it into a blues number where everyone can steal a solo.

It’s easy for two countries with as much in common as America and the UK to pick up on each others’ little foibles. This is especially true when it comes to music, and even more so with a genre like folk, seeing as, err… us limeys invented it (cue threats to reanimate Woody Guthrie and his fascist killing machine). America took the sound of a mediaeval British village and gave it some serious chutzpah. It has since spawned blues and country, as well as regional spin offs such as zydeco, and in recent times has had the measure of the folk hero in the mould of Guthrie, Dylan or Baez, even Simon and Garfunkel. We heard them and raised you Mumford and Sons, for which we are eternally sorry. But, one name that will perhaps stand out amongst the rest as our great great grandchildren paw through a walk-in wiki of our cutesy 4G age, will be The Airborne Toxic Event.

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2 Responses

2:01 pm
14th October 2013

New post: Live Review: The Airborne Toxic Event @Airborne_Toxic at London Shepherd’s Bush Empire – 7th October 2013: http://t.co/ADBMM6Ti3k

3:32 pm
16th October 2013

[…] There Goes the Fear penned one of the most thorough gig reviews we’ve seen after the London concert, drilling down in depth on many of the songs performed that night. “Greeted with the passion of a London crowd that had been chomping at the megabit for their somewhat adopted offspring to return, the Californian five-piece careered into old favourite ‘All at Once’ like someone had pushed Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen and Mumford and Sons into the Large Hadron Collider. Without so much as a “hello”, their unique brand of foot-stomping post folk had the audience cooing like 2000 proud parents. This opener, a favourite single from 2011 critically acclaimed album of the same name, was a taster menu for everything that was about to follow, encompassing aspects of style, stagecraft, dynamics and instrumentation that would be sculpted throughout the set.” […]

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