The Airborne Toxic Event loves to dabble in diverse musical styles. Any attempt to describe their sound requires some sort of an amalgamation of indie rock, punk and folk, with frequent orchestral flourish.
This eclectic mix manifests itself in the band’s live shows. Most commonly, TATE can be found sweating their guts out, climbing balconies, crowd surfing and blowing the roof off clubs from here to Kalamazoo.
But every once in awhile, they do something a little different, a little grander, filling out their sound with guests like The Calder Quartet – and even, upon occasion, a full orchestra. On these nights, Airborne is a little more restrained, trading reckless abandon for extra attention to musical craftsmanship.
Two very different experiences, both exhilarating, and impossible to choose between.
Three years ago, the band released All I Ever Wanted, a feature-length film and live album showcasing the latter type of show: a virtuoso performance with the Calders and a variety of other special guests. And of course, TATE fans have eaten it up.
But, ever greedy for more material to satiate our boundless appetite for this band, we’ve also longed for a DVD and/or live album that captures those sweaty club shows to which we’ve become addicted: The Airborne Toxic Event in full-on rock mode.
Little do many fans know, it’s already been released.
This past summer, TATE forum member javier unearthed a gem, hidden away in plain sight. NME presents Does This Mean You’re Moving On: The Airborne Toxic Event Live at Koko, London is a complete TATE show circa 2009, with DVD-quality production. But it’s not available on DVD or Blu-Ray, and as far as I know, the release has never been announced by the band.
Currently, the video can only be purchased digitally through Google Play for Android, or through the subscription-based Qello music app ($5 per month). You can see it for free by signing up for a one-week Qello trial, though it won’t be easy to give up your subscription after seeing this show, because it’s exactly what we’ve wanted out of a future DVD release, save perhaps for the fact that the most recent two albums are of course not represented in this early gig. Nonetheless, it’s an incredible capsule of TATE’s early days, complete with a genuine moment of Airborne history.
With a running time of an hour and a quarter, the 15-song set incorporates the entire debut album, early versions of a couple more recent fan favorites, and one highlight in particular: a song that long-time TATE fans have always wished to hear at this level of recording quality.
As the band takes the stage, suited in black as was typical of that era, a few things immediately jump out. Singer Mikel Jollett’s beloved Gretsch is nowhere to be seen. Noah Harmon’s bass is red and shiny, the paint just beginning to wear in a couple spots. And the crowd is an impressive size (and impressively engaged) for a band so young in their career – a factor no doubt fueled by their earlier 30 shows in 30 days UK tour.
The band kicks into gear with a two-minute jam that starts slowly and ramps up in intensity before suddenly dropping off. Mikel introduces the opening number: “This is a song about dying young.” And then we’re off with This is Nowhere.
Now, it’s possible that I may be biased towards this song, but seeing it here, it’s a shame that this number has completely fallen off the map the past two tours. The energy is tremendous, and it seems worthy of at least the occasional appearance, a la Papillon – which just so happens to be the next song in the set, Mikel pushing his voice into crazed territory. Tough to believe him when he barks, “Oh yeah, I’ll be just fine!” Such a mess indeed – but a compelling mess.
Gasoline is next, with Mikel concerned to let everyone know that it’s a true story – “they’re all fuckin’ true stories.” The familiar dueling solos from Steven Chen and Anna Bulbrook are present already, though Anna’s using some distortion on the viola, as per the album version, as opposed to the unfiltered rendition she’s favored more recently. Much like on the current tour, Gasoline gives way to Happiness is Overrated, notable for the fact that the intro is not drawn out or extended in any way.
And then we have a real treat, as the band launches into Echo Park with its thumping bass intro, similar to Something New. Echo has long been the great white whale for diehard fans, having received many live airings in the early days, but never having been released in any format. To this day, whenever any of the band members submit to an online Q&A, you can always count on some old time fan asking if this tune will ever receive an official release. So it’s wonderful to see Echo Park included here – the first clean, pro quality recording available. Truly, it’s worth the price of the video just to get your hands on this beauty.
Something rare is followed by Something New, with the familiar extended bass opening, and then we’re right into This Losing. The more I see it, the more convinced I become that this track deserves more love. I’ve not yet had the privilege of seeing it live, but for my money, it’s a top 10 live TATE song. Anna and Noah’s mini-concerto two thirds of the way in, with Anna on viola and Noah taking bow to bass guitar, is a shiver moment.
It’s surprising to see Sometime Around Midnight turn up so early in the set, but it’s no less climactic despite coming at the show’s midpoint. The crowd appears on the verge of lifting right off the ground and going into orbit. And a lyrical twist: that famous white dress is now black, for one night at least.
If there’s anything that can compete with Echo Park as the treasure of this collection, it comes hot on the heels of Midnight: the world premiere of a new song called All I Ever Wanted, Mikel ingratiating himself to the crowd by saying they thought it only fitting to debut the song in London.
All I Ever Wanted as it exists today is, among other things, a showcase for Anna, whose viola lends the track so much texture and drama. However, in this debut version, she takes a back seat, the viola present but very much on the periphery. Instead, the guitars are at the forefront, with Mikel providing the melody line between the first and second verses. The dramatic build-up prior to the last stanza and chorus is likewise carried by Mikel and Steven on the guitar, with the final notes having a mild punk feel to them.
There are also a few minor lyrical changes. Instead of the wires humming, it’s sprinklers. Rather than pretending she can’t hear him, he just hopes she can’t. In place of the virgin bride referenced in the All I Ever Wanted film version (and left out entirely on the All At Once rendition), we have a pristine girl. And as the song reaches its dramatic conclusion, we’re left with a final haunting line: “We’re both dying.” Overall, it’s a spectacular rendering, and an undeniable treat to bear witness to this moment in Airborne history.
Following a cover of Goodbye Horses that sees the stage bathed in green and a massive mirrorball setting the crowd alight comes another new song: A Letter to Georgia. Mikel warns that “it’s kind of a quiet song… We don’t do a lot of those.” With the band now having a fine collection of tender ballads under its belt (Duet, All For a Woman, Graveyard, Timeless, The Fifth Day, Elizabeth, Dublin and more), it’s easy to forget that this was new ground for a band whose debut album was balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll.
The crowd may not have expected it, but they can’t help but fall under its spell. Anna’s delicate plucking of strings sets the tone, with the whine of bow on bass adding further color to an arrangement that starts out more sparse than the version that would eventually be released on All I Ever Wanted. The second half of the song, however, sees Steven’s chiming guitar take on a prominent role, giving the end of the song a harder edge than we’ve become accustomed to. A new fan favorite is born.
As the main set turns toward the finish line, the opening and closing songs from the debut album find a home side by side. Wishing Well – “the first song we ever played” – leads into Innocence, with the full Heaven is a Map intro. Noah pulls out the bow for a fourth time, while Steven takes his first turn on the keys (something we see only twice in this show) and later leads a fierce mass clap-along. As the song climaxes, it seems to send the entire venue into a trance-like state: crowd bouncing as one; musicians bent over, heads bowed, playing with abandon; all lost in the music. Only after the last note dies out do you realize how exhausted you are – in the best possible sense.
The encore arrives quickly, with drummer Daren Taylor offering up a “Helloooo London!” and exhorting the crowd to join in a rhythmic clap, leading into his blistering drum solo. Mikel leaves his guitar to the side for the first and only time, and seems awed by the fervent crowd. He climbs a speaker as Steven leans into the blistering riff of Does This Mean You’re Moving On? Before long, Mikel has the crowd jumping around like “a bunch of fuckin’ monkeys,” the roof having officially blown off.
The fans aren’t ready for it to end, but Mikel laughs, claiming that with only one album to draw from, they only know one more song. But of course that’s not true, as tonight’s Missy medley includes snatches of The Smiths’ Ask and Panic. Noah thrills with his customary bass solo, and then Mikel handles the introductions. On this night, he expands it to include the audience, pointing out a number of fans who caught his eye over the course of the show, and summing things up with a statement that now seems prescient:
“This is London.”
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.