As befits their name, an air of mystery enshrouded the long-awaited return of The Airborne Toxic Event on Friday night.
The anxious fans lined up outside the El Rey Theatre had little idea what to expect as their band returned from a hiatus that had stretched to a nigh unbearable year-and-a-half. When the El Rey residency was announced last fall, the group promised that it would center around new music. In the wake of Airborne’s 2015 dual release of synth-soaked Dope Machines and acoustic folk rocker Songs of God and Whiskey, what it might sound like was anyone’s guess. Apart from the one-off election anthem “America,” dropped in October, the band left precious little in the way of clues along the way.
A pair of Facebook posts leading up to the gig clarified their intentions for the residency, if not their musical direction.
El Rey. Thursday night. Show one of the Residency.
We’re doing new songs so no videos please. We request you keep your phones/cameras off and be in the moment with us.
There’s a lot going on. Thursday is step one. More to come.
The El Rey Residency is not the start of a record cycle. It’s not a showcase. It’s not even a finished product.
It’s rock and roll in a sweaty room.
We have new songs and we want to play them for you before we make a new record. Like the old days. We miss that.We want to sweat and jump, clap and scream, whisper and sing with you. Then maybe we’ll record it. That’s rock and roll.
In other words, any hopes that this month’s stand will lead swiftly into an album and a string of dates across North America and beyond will have to wait a bit. Patience, they say, is a virtue.
That said, Mikel Jollett left little doubt on Thursday that this is all headed somewhere – and somewhere special at that.
As to touring, he promised a proper tour “next year, or maybe later this year.” And though the album does seem to be a ways off, the picture came into clearer focus throughout the course of the evening.
Jollett has been writing for a year and a half, the last six months of which have been spent with the full band, working the music into shape. The time they have put into it together was evident in the cohesion of the musicians on the eight new songs debuted on the El Rey stage.
Even more striking was the philosophy undergirding this new material. Whatever frustration Jollett and the band may have felt over their last few albums failing to break through on radio has been put behind them. The new songs represent a conscious return to Jollett’s original approach of not worrying about writing radio hits. This album is for the fans, he said – and not just for the fans, but in some real sense, with the fans. Several times he emphasized that we – all of us – are making this album together. That’s what the El Rey residency is truly about: bringing the fans into the record-making process.
But back to the beginning.
As fans held down their spots on the pavement through the afternoon and early evening hours, a pair of omens presented themselves. The first came when a guitar case was unloaded from the truck in front of the venue, emblazoned with the words, “MJ’s New Hotness.” The second found a lone black bird swooping down and perching itself on the El Rey roof, just beside the neon marquee proclaiming the return of The Airborne Toxic Event.
Something new and something old. That’s exactly what this night held in store.
As for the new hotness, we never did see a new guitar on Jollett’s shoulder. Trusty old Sweetness held her ground. But there was plenty of new on display. Far from easing into the fresh material, the band boldly opened with three new songs: “Hollywood Park,” “Brother How Was the War?” and “Carry Me.”
The opener was a sprawling rocker, back to basics in a way and yet too long and complex to find a home on radio – which to these ears is a mark in its favor.
In his introduction to “Brother,” Jollett set the mood for the night – and indeed, for the next album – by sharing a personal story. This song is about a letter from his father, written in Chino prison in 1965, to his father’s brother, who was serving in the Vietnam War. For the first time on stage, Jollett shared that his father passed away recently (2015), and said that this album is largely about him: his best friend, now gone.
What followed was a stunner. I’ve had the privilege of hearing many Airborne songs in concert before ever having heard a recording – five songs from Such Hot Blood and four from Dope Machines. For me the gold standard of these debuts was when I heard “The Fifth Day” for the first time at Red Rocks. It was a true hair-standing-up-on-my-arms moment.
There were a number of such moments tonight, and the first came in this intensely personal song – specifically, when it exploded out of a quiet beginning into near 80’s power rock ballad territory. I’m not sure that description does it justice; it’s hard to put into words after just one hearing on a night of firsts. But that was my impression at the time. The music was overwhelming.
After dipping into the back catalog for a trilogy of songs (more on that later), it was right back into new territory with “Come on Out” (a song about running away from home when you’re ten, only to return and get your ass kicked, Jollett joked), “All the Children” and “The Common Touch,” about his uncle Mark. All three were excellent, but “The Common Touch” stood out for its incredible lyricism. Of course, I can’t remember any of the words hours later, but it immediately struck me as one of Jollett’s best lyrical compositions, at turns witty and profound. This is one to watch for.
After another dip back into the tried and true, the next debut was simply “True.” Featuring a falsetto chorus, the song closed with a line of devastating beauty: “One thing you can trust: I will meet you in the dust. I will see you in the dust.” (I hope I got that right. In fact, I hope I paired the lyric with the right song! It’s late…)
After closing the main set with a quartet of old favorites, the encore opened with the final debut of the night: “1963.” With Jollett seated at an upright piano (which Steven Chen had played on a number of earlier songs,) the band delivered another astoundingly beautiful song for which I struggle to come up with a comparison from their previous work. Just gorgeous.
I mentioned that this night was about old meeting new. The new was obvious. But there was something very familiar about it, too. If this body of work (unfinished as it is) has a spiritual cousin, it has to be The Airborne Toxic Event’s debut record. These songs are remarkably personal from beginning to end, a trait they share with that first album. And it caught me off guard. With the frequency and ferocity of Jollett’s Trump-tweeting, I was expecting angry political songs. I wasn’t prepared to be ushered back into the singer’s freshly wounded heart.
I really should have known.
The connection between old and new was evident in the selection of familiar songs the band chose to complement the work in progress. Only one song from the past three albums (“Hell and Back”). Four songs from All At Once (“Numb,” “Changing,” “All I Ever Wanted” and the title track, which brought the night to a satisfying conclusion). Three from the debut: “Wishing Well,” “Sometime Around Midnight” and “Happiness is Overrated.” And most surprisingly, all three b-sides from that first album: “This Losing,” “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” and “The Winning Side.”
It seems The Airborne Toxic Event is looking ahead by looking back, and looking inward. In doing so, they appear to have found something incredibly special.
The fans who will attend the three remaining shows at the El Rey are in for a treat. Though the wait for some of us will be longer, it will be well worth it.
For The Airborne Toxic Event, there are stories yet to be written. And they are going to be fucking good.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere and author of Toxic History: The Story of The Airborne Toxic Event. 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.