Whatever drugs Mikel Jollett took on Saturday, it was some good shit.
Friday night in Reno found Jollett in somewhat subdued form, at least by his usual kinetic standards. The suspicion that he wasn’t feeling 100% was confirmed the following morning, when it was learned that The Airborne Toxic Event frontman was battling the flu.
Any lingering illness was not apparent Saturday night, however, as the band unleashed holy hell on Sacramento. From the opening bars of “Poor Isaac,” this was a different Jollett from the previous night, full of the piss and fury that make Airborne at their best such a riveting spectacle.
The band and crowd fed off his renewed vigor throughout a 90-minute rock’n’roll assault that lived up to the Whiskey Machine moniker, with selections from The Airborne Toxic Event’s pair of 2015 albums comprising a third of a set that was relentless in its energy.
The festivities began with a rollicking Songs of God and Whiskey segment, as “Poor Isaac,” “Cocaine and Abel” and “Change and Change and Change and Change” all featured in the first quartet of songs. “Isaac” found Jollett channeling a rage that was positively biblical in scope, threatening to swallow whole the Ace of Spades as he spat out sharp indictments of the Almighty.
Never before has an ill-advised coke trip sounded so fun as during the infectious “woooo-ooooohs” of “Cocaine and Abel.” Jollett’s wit was in fine form here, both in the actual lyrics and in the quips he sprinkled throughout. “Don’t do drugs… unless you want to write songs.”
The Whiskey segment was interrupted briefly for “Gasoline,” which couldn’t have felt more at home in the middle of a SOGAW sandwich. Stylistically it’s cut from the same cloth, and the crowd thrilled to the sight of Anna Bulbrook and Steven Chen perched at the edge of opposite ends of the stage while Jollett and Adrian Rodriguez attacked their instruments behind them.
“Change and Change” kept the party going with its self-deprecating “I suck” humor segueing flawlessly into the “Nope, I won’t change” declaration of “Changing.” The All at Once hit was swiftly followed by album mate “Half of Something Else.”
Hot on the heels of that came a back-to-basics rendering of “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” in which the band abandoned the three-headed drum monster opening that has been standard for a number of years now. Jollett kept his flu to himself by refraining from leaping into the crowd, but it didn’t stop the patrons from jumping around like a bunch of fucking monkeys.
“Moving On” gave way to the Dope Machines portion of the show, with four of the next five numbers being culled from Airborne’s recent expedition into electro-rock. “Hell and Back” led things off, the fans impressing Jollett with their ability to echo back his gibberish. “That is the best singalong I’ve heard in Sacramento in a long time,” he noted wryly.
Current single “One Time Thing” had everyone bouncing, both on stage and off. How could it not? The song’s groovy verses and rhythmic bridges just elicit involuntary movement.
In a “there’s no place like home” moment, Jollett pointed out that the band has been all across the country and halfway around the world this year and, well… there’s no place like home. With that we were headlong into “California,” which never sounds better than when it’s performed in the musicians’ home state.
The band dipped back into their debut album briefly for “Wishing Well,” which was like a whole different song compared to the previous night’s performance. Back in the mix were Rodriguez’s thumping bass solo, punctuated by the tinkling of Jollett’s keys, that combine to give the pensive rock tune an almost dance club feel. It was an astonishing highlight on a night that was full of them.
It was back to Dope Machines for “Wrong,” which is just a massive heavyweight in a live setting. The album recording is marvellous, but the added guitar and pumped up vocals make it an utter beast.
A cover of “Pursuit of Happiness” followed. Each time it’s played you can hear happy surprise rippling through the venue amongst those who haven’t followed the group closely enough to know that it’s become a standard of late. It’s rare that a cover fits so seamlessly within a band’s arsenal, but The Airborne Toxic Event have clearly claimed this song and made it their own.
Once again, the main set concluded with the pairing of “All I Ever Wanted” and “Sometime Around Midnight.” I tend to gloss over these songs in my reviews, but I can assure you that it’s not because they’ve become rote. It’s just that I’ve run out of superlatives. How many ways can you say, “That was incredible?” Tonight was the first time I really focused on Adrian during the climactic instrumental break on “Midnight,” and it was truly a sight to behold. Dude was throttling the neck of his bass with a ferocity that had me expecting the head to pop off at any moment.
A slightly truncated encore saw the setlisted “The Fall of Rome” fall by the wayside, unfortunately, not that anyone was complaining when the opening notes of “Elizabeth” filled the air. The singing of the transfixed audience gave Jollett a backing chorus of hundreds for the evening’s only quiet moment.
That quiet was quickly stricken from the menu as a succession of cacophonous beats from Daren Taylor’s drum kit signaled “Happiness is Overrated.” Always a raucous affair, “Happiness” also yielded a moment of levity when Jollett whacked himself in the face with his microphone as he spun it around after extending it to the crowd for a final shout along chorus.
The band had one more song left in them, as “All at Once” returned to its more familiar place at the conclusion of the show after appearing mid-set 24 hours earlier. It was a bittersweet moment as the tune came to life, knowing that four minutes of perfection was all that stood between me and the end of #TATEweekend. With no more shows on the horizon, this high is going to have to last longer than usual. Thankfully, this show registered a 99.9 on the Richter scale, so it’ll have some legs.
I’ll close my weekend with four random observations that struck me at various points last night.
1. The Airborne Toxic Event has the nicest crew in the business. From Bill Handlin on down, they are gracious to a fault, and are actually a highlight in and of themselves for those who get the chance to interact with them. Thank you, crew, for all that you do.
2. Daren Taylor is a rock. From where I stood last night, there was a gaping hole between Jollett and Bulbrook, affording me a rare, unobstructed view of the band’s stiff backbone. Sometimes I feel like Taylor doesn’t get enough attention on the blog; I can assure you that it’s not because “nobody ever recognizes the drummer.” From his mad skills on the kit, to his crazy drummer faces and winks, to the way he sought out kids in the audience on both nights to gift them his drumsticks, Taylor is just another reason this band is so special.
3. TATE fans are awesome. I met so many This Is Nowhere readers this weekend while also reconnecting with a few I’ve run into previously, and you are all wonderful. I honestly find it ridiculous and surreal and more than a little embarrassing to have so many people approach me at shows – seriously folks, I’m just a guy who loves a band, same as you. Whatever time and energy I’ve sunk into this website has been repaid a hundredfold in the friendships made along the way. “Just as long as I’m never alone…” Looking forward to seeing you again down the road.
4. Those who know me well would probably have many words to describe me, but chipper is certainly not one of them. Somehow, though, The Airborne Toxic Event puts a smile on my face like nothing in my life outside my family. Starry-eyed perma-grin is not the coolest look on a 40-year-old, but in a year when happiness has been pretty tough to come by at many points, it is a rare gift – and not at all overrated, as it turns out. Thanks, band.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.