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“All I Ever Wanted: The Airborne Toxic Event Live From Walt Disney Concert Hall Featuring The Calder Quartet”

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On July 30th, 2008, six days before the release of their debut album on Majordomo Records, I saw the Airborne Toxic Event for the first time – upstairs at a downtown Boston Irish bar. It was a crazy radio station event, with guys dressed in bathrobes and cowboy boots, and girls in lingerie (with some strippers hired by the station for added effect). The ‘stage’ was the far end of the room, with maybe 150 of us packed into the small space. A year and a half later, here they are at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, a world-class concert venue, home to the L.A. Philharmonic.

“We’re not an important enough band for a gig like this. We’ve only had one record. Who gives a f*ck about a band with one record?” – Mikel Jollett

This show marked the 354th performance in support of that first album. From early television appearances like Carson Daly, Letterman, Conan O’Brian; to touring as support for The Fratellis, and their 30-shows-in-30-nights in the U.K. And at the beginning of last year, their first headlining tour, with stops in mainland Europe and Asia, and many of the world’s largest music festivals – including Slovakia and Korea. During which time their debut album sold over 300,000 copies, which is truly remarkable for a first release recorded at a friend’s house and initially on an indie label. For such a non-stop marathon of constant touring to be capped off with a production like this is astonishing.

The performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall was part of the “West Coast Left Coast” series, highlighting the musical traditional of California. Airborne wanted their contribution to be a celebration of L.A.’s Eastside, where they live and where the band was born and nurtured.

A year in the making, they invited musicians who represented the cultural diversity of the area, including their friends and frequent collaborators the Calder Quartet, a horn section and an accordion player, Plaza de la Raza‘s student folklórico dancers (accompanied by the Conjunto XI mariachi ensemble), the Belmont High School Marching Band, and Lalo Guerrero School of Music‘s children’s choir. In this, their first ever live concert DVD, they include not only the performance, but a behind-the-scenes documentary of its production. Despite the humorous flurry of last minute preparations with the various performing groups, and the band’s own charming ‘everything can fall apart at any time’ persona, a tremendous amount of planning and hard work went into this one-night-only performance.

“All I Ever Wanted” was produced by Brian Gerard and the band’s manager, Pete Galli; and directed by Jon Danovic. Meticulously crafted, it’s one of the finest concert films I’ve ever seen, with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the show’s preparations, including the band working out new arrangements for their songs. But it’s also an intimate portrayal of how they interact and work together, their humor and camaraderie, their group dynamic. Between the documentary itself and the oftentimes hilarious running commentary which is included as a bonus (part educational, part Mystery Science Theater), one gets a very strong sense of Airborne’s unique personality, and the strong contribution each member makes to the whole.

Scenes move between black & white for rehearsals to color for the actual show, woven together in a beautiful way. The film seamlessly glides from preparation to performance, and from emotionally moving and majestic (“Book of Love” with Mikel’s dedication to his grandmother, “Duet” and a touching rehearsal scene with Mikel and Anna, “Missy” accompanied by the girls’ choir) to irreverent and comical (dogs clamoring for attention during band rehearsals, Anna picking out her dress, Steven woefully out of his element as he tries to motivate young marching band players).

At the core of some marvelous musical performances (most remarkable for the youngest participants, who had very little time to rehearse and bring it all together) is Airborne’s musical chemistry with The Calder Quartet. Having performed together on numerous occasions, they’re so comfortable with the songs now and with the band’s style, that they inhabit the music and make it their own, adding little flourishes and a certain amount of improvisation. “Wishing Well,” “Sometime Around Midnight,” and “Innocence” are classic Calder Quartet pieces, but their arrangements on “All I Ever Wanted” and “Goodbye Horses” are stunning. Another revelation was how amazing Airborne’s songs sound “expanded” with additional performers. I usually prefer the stripped down demo to the lavish production, but “Something New” with accordion, “Happiness Is Overrated” with a horn section, and their grand entrance with the Belmont High School Marching Band, roaring into “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” are phenomenal. The Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” was an inspired choice; every marching band in the world should add that song to their repertoire.

Besides the musical beauty of this show is something I’ve always loved about Airborne, taken to an exponential power on this particular evening: their joy of performance. The fun and excitement they radiate is contagious. Their humble disbelief at being invited to play at such an esteemed concert hall is honest and endearing and makes the experience feel very personal. Mikel has mentioned in interviews how, in pre-Airborne times, he and his Silverlake friends would assemble in his living room and mess around on various instruments, with the evening culminating in a song that everyone would learn. Even in larger, more austere venues (and what could be more daunting for a band than performing at Disney Hall?), they are somehow able to maintain this feeling of intimacy, an informal gathering with a group of friends.

In addition to the band’s commentary, other bonus items include a little more ‘making of’ footage, and a beautiful version of their cover of William Garvey’s “Goodbye Horses,” with some very nice touches from the Calder Quartet.

If all that isn’t enough, the DVD package includes a CD of the show, which is breathtaking in its clarity and sound quality, and must be listened to with headphones to truly appreciate the amazing acoustics of that venue, and how expertly it was recorded, mixed and mastered.

“All I Ever Wanted” is a celebration of The Airborne Toxic Event, who they are and where they come from, their whirlwind first few years from small clubs to grand concert hall, and a personal look at their inner workings and personality. I can’t think of a more perfect introduction to this band, nor a greater gift to those who already know and love them.

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2 Comments

  1. Henry R.

    Great review Julie! I like what you said towards the end, about them maintaining the feeling of intimacy during their shows as they did when it was just them in a tiny living room…I still need to get this DVD!

    -Henry

  2. Tammy Asaki

    Another spot-on review, Julie 🙂 And Henry, how do you not have this yet!

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