musings from boston

screams, whispers and songs from planet earth

Boston Love Fest: The Airborne Toxic Event at the Paradise Rock Club, March 7, 2009

I’m not sure if it was because it’s been such a long, cold, snowy and icy winter; or because things have been rather stressful for me lately and I desperately needed to tear loose; or because The Airborne Toxic Event are the best band in the world… but in my not-so-objective opinion, Saturday night’s show at the Paradise Rock Club was transcendental. Bands have good nights and not-so-good nights, TATE being no exception I’m sure, but ultimately, I think, it’s up to the audience whether or not a particular performance reaches the level of religious experience. And this audience was off the charts. On only a few occasions during my concert-going lifetime has the vibe of a place been so high that it’s given me chills, and this was one of those times.

But before the actual show was the “special acoustic performance.” Originally scheduled for earlier in the afternoon at the Hard Rock Cafe, it was moved to 6:30 p.m. at the Paradise, and turned out to be more of a extended soundcheck, which was just as cool, and in many ways, cooler.

I arrived about an hour before to check things out, and met some new friends – mother and son, and huge Airborne fans (big “shout out” to Sharon and Ethan!). They had driven down from New Hampshire for the show (as did a lot of folks there). Ethan, in fact, was the winner of the Sandbox Spelling Bee mentioned in my ‘FNX contest saga. And speaking of which, as a rather fitting postscript to that contest madness, I almost didn’t get in, as they didn’t have my name on the list! Fortunately, 1) they changed the time and place for the show, 2) ‘FNX called my cell phone to tell me of this change, 3) I didn’t have my phone with me, so they left a message, and 4) I did have my phone with me at the show. So yes, I held up the phone to the guy’s ear, and was let in.

But bizareness turned into bliss when the 70 or so of us walked into the empty Paradise to TATE on stage, casually doing their soundcheck. It was pretty funny; people sort of stood around in a reverant semi-circle, not believing their good fortune. Absolutely awesome. When I walked in, they were in the midst of “Goodbye Horses” – that beautiful cover of the Q. Lazzarus song.

They went on to play Gasoline, Happiness Is Overrated, Wishing Well, Sometime Around Midnight, Does This Mean You’re Moving On? (with ‘FNX’s Fletcher on guest vocals, and he was pretty good!), and Missy – with the band working out sound issues, having fun and messing around, and Mikel chatting to the small, enraptured audience between songs.

So great to see them like this, to get a feel of what it’s like for them to work out songs and stage sound, etc. You really get a taste of their camaraderie and how much they love what they’re doing (which, come to think of it, isn’t all that different from an actual show). It was a lovely time, and kudos to WFNX and the band (and their management) for setting this up.

check out the sign behind Anna - you just can't plan for shots like this (someone better tell her)


The show that evening was incredibly special. When the previous two shows, Ottawa and Montreal, were cancelled due to Mikel’s laryngitis recovery (and a 102 degree fever in Toronto), I wasn’t even sure it would happen. But Boston is a special place, not just because Anna hails from here (and I’m sure her family and friends were in attendance), but because of the support WFNX has given the band, from the very start. I wasn’t aware they had been playing them for that long, but Mikel mentioned something about them giving the band airplay as early as 2006 [did I hear this correctly? Were they really playing the early mp3s?].

The Henry Clay People - spare no expense for the effect boxes holding case. Simple, functional, done.

The Henry Clay People - spare no expense for the effect boxes holding case. Simple, functional, done.

The Henry Clay People came on first, and man, were they great! L.A. blogger Classical Geek Theatre joined them for some midwest dates, and listed some shows that the band felt were their strongest – I’m betting that Boston gets added to that list. A successful performance depends upon audience participation, especially with a band like Henry Clay, given their fun onstage antics and engaging ways – and the audience last night was definitely up for it. I think their straightahead yet playful classic rock with a quirky indie tinge is a perfect fit for a raucous Boston (and New Hampshire) audience. Something just jelled, and it jelled in a major way. And this is with most people, I’m sure, completely unfamiliar with their music.

Brothers Joey and Andy Siera messed around on stage, with Mike Hopkins and Jonathan Price on drums and bass; sloppy loose fun with a really tight sound. I’m still getting familiar with their music, so if there’s any big HCP fans who were there, please let me know the exact set list.

From previous shows, I’m guessing it included “I Was Half Asleep” and “Something In The Water,” from their new album “For Cheap Or For Free.” Definitely “Working Part Time,” from the same album, with Steven joining them on guitar (fantastic!), and Joey venturing out into the audience. Probably “End of an Empire” and “Digital Kid”.

And most definitely a seriously kick-ass version of the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” which the crowd loved and sang along to, joined by blistering guitar work from Steven and also Noah. Yes, that’s right, Noah on guitar and not bass, and I have pictures to prove it. So convincing was Noah, especially; I’m almost inclined to say he’s in the wrong band!

They left the stage to big cheers from the crowd, and I heard a few people around me say how they were going to pick up their CD, so I’m guessing they did pretty well with merchandise sales that night.

Alberta Cross (from Brooklyn, NY) were on next. They were less successful, I thought, which is strange because I really like their CD (“The Thief & The Heartbreaker”). One major reason for this is they were just too damn loud. I’ve complained about this before, and especially when you’re a band playing for a new audience, this sort of thing is really important. The other two bands’ sound was perfect, so I can only guess that Alberta Cross just wanted it that way. I mean, they are excellent musicians, the lead singer has a distinctive, unique voice, and as I said, I enjoyed what I heard of their music beforehand, but this sounded very different. I think others must have felt the same way, because you could feel the energy level drop considerably. Some of this may have been due to HCP putting everyone in a rollicking party mood, and then Alberta Cross being more of a psychedelic, bluesy, jamming kind of band… but still, guys, just a tad lower next time (the Paradise isn’t a huge place), so the nuances of your music come through and we can distinctly hear the vocals.

Lead singer & guitarist of Alberta Cross, Petter Ericson Stakee

Lead singer & guitarist of Alberta Cross, Petter Ericson Stakee

But then TATE was up next. As Daren made last minute adjustments to his drumset and Blake (their driver/guitar tech, who made his video debut during their “30 shows in 30 days” tour diary) set up some wiring, excitement rapidly built again. I caught a glimpse (and a photo) of their setlist and the key changes, and was really excited to hear those new songs.

Mikel’s apparently feeling better, and his voice seems stronger than what I heard in some of the videos of other shows. In fact, and I think it was for “Sometime Around Midnight,” he sang a few upper register lines that he hadn’t been able to do in the last few shows. But he’s still not 100%, and he’s still singing lower for many of the songs, with the others (and the audience) singing backing vocals. Which, I have to say after experiencing this live, actually gives the show an even closer, more intimate feel. I don’t know if other people feel this way, and obviously we would have preferred that Mikel not get laryngitis (most of all, him!), but the result has created an interesting dynamic. A shared experience, perhaps? At this point, the entire audience knows the lyrics to all the songs, everyone is there to see them now, and the sing-a-long in Boston Saturday night was breathtaking. I also want to say how astonishing it is to me what they have been able to do on this tour, with the daily assessment of Mikel’s voice and constant key changes in the songs to accomodate and allow for his slowly improving condition. As an amateur guitarist (very amateur), I can’t imagine the level of musicianship that is required to meet a challenge such as this one. Amazing job, guys.

The lights go down, the audience cheers, the band comes on in darkness from the back of the stage…

Wishing Well. Starting with a wall of beautiful sound with Mikel on keyboards, before sliding into those familiar beginning notes. It occurs to me how ideal this song is to begin their show. The first chapter of the story, “standing on a bus stop feeling your head pop out, in the night on the kind of night…”, and also being the first song Mikel ever wrote. Perfect.

Papillon. What can I say about Papillon? An old friend. After buying those first four songs off iTunes early last year, transferring them to my cell phone, and that was the soundtrack of my commute to and from my job in Boston from the North Shore. Shouting out lines to the seagulls along the waterfront; punching my fist in the air at the Aquarium station, waiting for the train. Startling T passengers on more than one occasion, I’m sure, when I forgot where I was, immersed in the music, and belting out “Oh yeah, I’ve been just fine!”

Gasoline. Wonderful musical buildup, and as performed live, this has become a crowd favorite, enthusiastically sung along to. With the great “boys vs. girls” guitar and viola interplay between Steven and Anna, the two joining together with Daren and Noah mixing in, to build to those frenzied last verses.. “I was only twenty-one, I wasn’t having any fun..”

Happiness Is Overrated. This one has given Mikel the most trouble, with the “laryngitis-inspired key changes” (and is the one song of theirs I’ve had trouble with trying to teach myself on guitar). But being the consummate professionals they are, they’ve managed to turn this liability into a strength, and on this tour, Mikel’s turned his struggle into an audience participation moment, which really delighted the crowd. After starting to sing in the wrong key, Steven strummed the chord again, and Mikel asked the audience for the correct note. We failed miserably the first time, to much merriment and laughter, but did better on the second attempt, after which he found the correct pitch and the song proceeded beautifully.

It’s probably no accident that these first four songs are exactly how the album begins. For those people seeing them for the first time after listening to CD on eternal repeat, this must be like their musical oddysey come to life in a wonderful, magical way.

Echo Park. From the moment I first saw this performed at the L.A. show (via YouTube), I loved this new song, and it’s quite a departure in sound and style to anything on their debut album. My friend Victor and I were laughing about this, with respect to the list of bands TATE have been compared to in the press (my current count just topped 50; I’ll need to do a blog update) – he reckons we can now add Frankie Valli to that list (I think I said Beach Boys, we’ll add that one too). Also I believe it’s their only other song, apart from The Winning Side, with a chorus – ?

Girls In Their Summer Dresses. A new song for most people, this is actually one of their earliest ones, no doubt played in the L.A. clubs, and making its appearance on the first version of their EP that they sold at shows prior to the album release. A lovely little story about a married man’s wandering eye and his wife’s chagrin, based on the Irwin Shaw short story.

Letter To Georgia. Achingly beautiful, this instantly becomes one of my all-time favorite songs of theirs. A gut-wrenching, heartfelt delivery from Mikel with a lovely quiet simplicity to the music that carries the lyrics perfectly. Also very different from anything else I’ve heard of theirs, and hopefully on the next album. Special request to Mikel, if he’s reading this: lyrics for the new songs online somewhere, please? Especially this one.

Goodbye Horses. Wonderful cover of the Q. Lazzarus song, probably best-known to people for its appeararance in The Silence of the Lambs. I wasn’t so familiar with it (heard it first at the Knott’s Berry Farm show, when they played it during their soundcheck), but it’s quite nice and got big applause in Boston. Well, everything did of course! But this is one that people are not going to be too familiar with.

This Is Nowhere. Love this one (have I said that before?). No seriously, I do. It’s an ode to the Silverlake music scene, which Mikel always mentions when they play this. So many amazing bands; I frustrate myself by having bunches of them as “friends” on MySpace, and then hearing about all the great, great shows… that I can’t go to. Rademacher, Henry Clay People, Happy Hollows, Monolators, The Movies, Voxhaul Broadcast, Summer Darling, The Deadly Syndrome, Castledoor, The Pity Party, Radars to the Sky, Afternoonssigh.

Sometime Around Midnight. On one of the YouTube videos (can’t recall now – Columbus?) the guy filming says, “hey, I know this song…” It must have been this one where Mikel sang a few of the higher octave lines as he usually does, and I thought, “oh man, he’s getting better, thank god!” A shivery, tearful moment, to suddenly be enveloped in the sound and feel of hundreds of people singing along. Soon it will be thousands. Yeah, I know, we won’t discuss that now. But just think how totally cool that will be…

Innocence – the “Heaven” version. Achingly beautiful, with gorgeous string accompaniment from Anna and Noah. What a joy to hear this performed live, after seeing that beautiful acoustic video, and the few times the Calder Quartet have performed with them in Los Angeles. And with those awesome percussive blasts from Daren, launching into absolute frenzy, with of course, yet another audience sing-a-long. They leave the stage to not cheering, but roaring. More like the sound of 6,000 than 600.

Does This Mean You’re Moving On? First song of the encore, with tambourines sprinkled out to the crowd. No Fletcher on vocals this time, but a major audience sing-and-play-along. Sadly no crowd surfing as per Paradise house rules, but let’s just say crowd walking from Anna, going in on one side and magically emerging from the other. Lots of bouncing around like monkeys on this one. I dare you not to.

Missy. Final song of the evening, and they must have realized that to invite “anyone who wanted to come up” would mean all 650 of that sold out, frenzied, ecstatic room would be up on stage in a heartbeat. So instead, Anna selected random people from the audience, which seemed to work out well, and no one accidentally unplugged anything or whacked Mikel in the eye.

An evening shared with The Airborne Toxic Event and hundreds of their adoring fans? Priceless.

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4 Comments

  1. I’m not Mikel, and I can’t guarantee they’re all 100% accurate, but I have lyrics on every TATE song in existence, fancily posted for your clean, ad-free pleasure:

    http://rightasrayne.net/TATE

  2. Was looking forward to this post. Enjoyed reliving a show with TATE upfront. You did a great job and mirrored a lot of my own feelings and observations from the Pittsburgh shows. Thanks!

  3. Rp

    Great review. Correction to Henry Clay lineup. Drummer is Mike and bassist is Jonathan.

  4. julie

    Thanks Rp, and my apologies to Mike & Jonathan! (serves me right for pulling names off the newest CD and not checking…)

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