Reno, Nevada’s famed archway proudly proclaims the town, “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Friday night, the streets of said Little City echoed with a most glorious sound, courtesy of The Airborne Toxic Event.
“So, we’re basically all in a fucking parking lot in the middle of Reno,” noted Mikel Jollett, and that about summed it up. With the host Whitney Peak Hotel (complete with an outdoor climbing wall running up the full length of one side of the building) towering above the makeshift venue on one side, and the shining neon lights of the Eldorado Casino on the opposite side, it was a setting unlike any other Airborne show that I’ve experienced.
After blistering sets by Sir Sly and The Joy Formidable set the table, the Airborne Toxic Event took the stage to the delicate opening strains of “Wishing Well.” On this night, they played the classic arrangement, rather than the funked up, bass-heavy version that has become the norm in concert over the past couple of years.
It was a subdued start to the proceedings; the beginning of a workmanlike performance in which banter was kept to a bare minimum as the band focused on delivering one tight hit after another. The brisk pace may have been necessitated by a strict noise bylaw that required the show to end promptly at 10 pm, so the band had to make every minute count. And count they did.
“Wishing Well” was followed by a trio of “All at Once” favorites: “Numb,” “Half of Something Else” and “Changing.” Unless my ears deceived me, Jollett adjusted the “Numb” line, “I think I’ve lost something,” to, “I think I’ve lost my phone” – neatly tying it into the themes of the latest album, Dope Machines.
The energy ramped up with the evening’s lone track from Songs of God and Whiskey, “Change and Change and Change and Change.” With the rowdy crowd enthusiastically shouting back every word, it is quickly becoming a must play.
Next, we were treated to a pair of selections from Dope Machines: the singalong “Hell and Back” and the incredibly infectious “One Time Thing,” which had both singer and audience bouncing throughout. “Happiness is Overrated” then transported us back to 2008, Jollett joking at the outset that it took two years of singing lessons for him to be able to hold that “alwaaaaayyyysss” note for so long.
The next song was an unplanned addition to the setlist, and may actually have been a happy accident. After Jollett mouthed instructions to his bandmates, there appeared to be a bit of confusion as to what he was calling for. As Daren Taylor kicked into the “Gasoline” drumbeat, the other musicians laughed, shrugged and went with it. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the night, with Anna Bulbrook and Steven Chen perched high on speakers on opposite sides of the stage for their viola/guitar duel, as Adrian Rodriguez relentlessly pounded away on bass on stage right.
The energy was turned down a notch for one of the few times all night for the subsequent number, but that’s not to say it gave the audience a chance to catch its breath – more like, it took our breath away. “A Letter to Georgia” was voted the number one rare song that fans want to experience live in our recent survey, and it was thrilling to see that it survived the three-week break in between shows after being played a few times on the east coast. It was, quite simply, exquisite.
“Georgia” gave way to a bit of a surprise, as “All at Once” found a home towards the middle of the set, as opposed to its traditional placement at either the start or end. Shaking things up is always welcome, but I do think it makes a perfect opener or closer.
Next up was a thundering take on “Wrong,” which actually had me wishing I could have a redo on my vote for favorite live TATE song. It had been awhile since I’d seen it in concert, and I had forgotten how powerful it is on stage. Jollett’s voice never sounded better than it did during this electro-rock masterclass.
Like “Goodbye Horses” and “The Book of Love” before it, Airborne’s cover of “Pursuit of Happiness” has evolved to the point where maybe it’s time to stop thinking of it as a cover and just consider it a TATE song. The rap-turned-rocker blew the roof off the joint – which is really saying something, considering there was no actual roof to blow.
As has been the norm on this brief Whiskey Machine Tour, the main set came to a close with the unmatchable one-two punch of “All I Ever Wanted” and “Sometime Around Midnight.” It is hard to imagine that the band didn’t win itself some new fans after everyone within a few blocks of the arch was treated to this perfect pairing.
After briefly exiting the stage, the band hustled back into position for an encore, even as an event staffer approached the sound booth, frantically pointing at her watch. The time on my phone read 9:59, but the band went for it anyway. The single song encore was stretched to two as Jollett punctuated “Missy” with the statement that “we can’t play Reno without playing this song” – this song being Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die…
After the seven-hit finale, The Airborne Toxic Event made a hasty retreat, as security quickly ushered the crowd out of the venue. Fans streamed into the nearby casinos, because, what else are you going to do in downtown Reno on a Friday night?
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.