A Los Angeles story of madness and awakening, in twelve parts
Part X: Impressions of Costa Mesa, missteps at Laguna Beach and the Wavelength Festival with Delta Spirit and The Airborne Toxic Event
Driving around Costa Mesa, looking for a decent vegetarian breakfast, it occurred to me how much the city is like a sprawling Simsbury, Connecticut — or, for you Bostonians, perhaps Newton. There were the endless upscale shopping centers, pristine landscaping and not a single non-white person to be seen at the outdoor yuppie-style cafe I finally came across in one of the many fancy yet nondescript strip malls. Even the name was vaguely elitist: Haute Cakes. Perfect. Two haute couture women were sitting next to me, chattering non-stop, while their equally stuffy and primped little dog wound itself around my leg. The food was good but no match for the ‘Angel’s Mess’ at Millie’s in Silver Lake, which was life-affirming.
I was thinking about the importance of the show I would be seeing that night. I’d been a fan of The Airborne Toxic Event since 2008, and though they’ve performed with an orchestra before, this was the first time they’d done so in the Los Angeles area. It was part of the Wavelength Festival, and they’d be appearing with the 85-piece Pacific Symphony at the state-of-the-art Pacific Amphitheatre. Fellow Angelinos Delta Spirit, a marvelous band and headliner in their own right, was opening for them. Over the five years I’ve known Airborne, they’ve continuously raised their game. They’ve become more accomplished musicians and performers, and their musical arrangements, particularly for the orchestral shows, ever more impressive. I can’t imagine how much time and energy it takes to work out parts for 85 additional players. Add to this the majesty of performing in a world-class amphitheatre with a world-class symphony orchestra, in front of what most certainly would be Southern California’s finest in terms of sophisticated music aficionados. All of that was bound to add up to a beautiful experience, right?
I first headed down to Laguna Beach to have a look around. It was a lovely scenic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, with coves, inlets and houses perched in hills with really great views. Laguna Beach is an upscale artist community with galleries, beautiful beachs and probably very expensive showcase homes. It was a different feel from where I’d been staying in Echo Park. Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against rich people. Heck, I’d like to be one myself. But for me, I just didn’t feel the charm — or I was too tired still to feel the charm.
I wandered onto an astonishing beach called Heisler Park, nestled among large and small rock formations. Gorgeous. I was sitting on one of these rocks, taking photos, soaking in the sun and minding my own business, when a French tourist asked me if I would take a photo of him on the beach. A simple enough request, yes? I take a perfectly decent shot on his iPhone. He doesn’t like it. Can I try again, but with no people in the background? Ok, sure. I take another perfectly decent shot. He doesn’t like that one either. He instructs me on where to stand, how to shoot it, where I should be in relation to the sun — I feel like I’m on some fecking fashion shoot for GQ. After about 20 minutes of this nonsense, dazed and shell-shocked from the sun and still not caught up on my sleep, I’m backing up on the sand to frame him just right… and I completely wipe out on one of those artfully placed rocks in the sand. Photo shoot over. Note to self: be wary of French men.
The Wavelength Festival
Back in Costa Mesa, I met up with friends and found my way to a center orchestra seat. It was about a football field back from where I usually like to be with this band, but it was a special sort of performance and I was looking forward to just listening to and experiencing their music in a beautiful outdoor amphitheatre. I was so excited to be seeing Airborne again in their “hometown” (more or less). The first time was at Knott’s Berry Farm in 2008, and that was just incredible. I was also excited to see Delta Spirit in Los Angeles, since I had just seen them play to a rabidly enthusiastic audience at a small Massachusetts festival. I expected their hometown fans to be even better.
When I first came into the amphitheatre, a classical-looking duo were just finishing their set. They were not billed on the posters or website, so I had no idea there was a third band. My apologies to whomever that was. The people who were already seated and not out on the concourse buying drinks or entering the raffle to win a mercedes didn’t even seem to notice them.
Delta Spirit came on, and I was stunned. No loud cheer, no one standing up except for maybe a few people at the very front. Not much of anything from the half-full theater. They sounded great, but were at a loss as to what to do with the lukewarm reception. Matt Vasquez did his best to encourage audience participation or anything beyond a mild coma, to little avail. He told stories about how great it was to be home and how his family was in attendance. Still nothing. After “People C’mon,” a well-known and well-loved selection from their debut album, failed to elicit any reaction, I turned to the people behind me and expressed my surprise that they weren’t getting a bigger response here. They asked me who the band was. Wow.
Fortunately when Airborne came on, after the members of the Pacific Symphony were settled, people seemed to know who they were. With Airborne, it was a different set of problems. On one side of me were a few young guys who were holding an ongoing conversation and playing with their cell phones during all the songs they didn’t know (which turned out to be everything except for “Changing,” “Numb” and “Sometime Around Midnight”). On my other side was a delirious (and deliriously drunk) woman who kept yelling out “I LOVE YOU MIKEL!!!” during the entire show, at approximately 30 second intervals, while he was singing. Her explosions did not seem to be connected to anything going on at that particular moment onstage. I think it was because he was 150 yards away from her. The people behind me who had no earthly clue who Delta Spirit was also talked among themselves. Everyone I could see had a drink in their hand.
I’m not sure which was worse — selective indifference or blind devotion. In both cases, I had to repeatedly ask my neighbors if they would be so kind as to SHUT THE F*CK UP. As a result, I can report to you that it seemed to be an astonishing performance. Though it felt more like I was watching a concert on a big screen TV in an unruly redneck bar, rather than actually being at a concert, the band were in top form (though I really can’t recall a time in recent years when they weren’t). The symphony added depth, sonic fullness and unexpected flourishes to their already rich sound. With a quietly respectful audience, the sound in that acoustically designed amphitheatre would have been breathtaking. The lighting and presentation were stunning. Put it this way: it had all the promise of an epic and exceptional production.
I don’t doubt that there were many fans there who were attentive, respectful and cheering at appropriate times. If I focused my attention away from my immediate surroundings, I did hear people earnestly singing along, well aware of what was going on up on the stage. But for me anyway, the experience didn’t come close to the band/audience Vulcan mind meld of the New York City Webster Hall shows back in January. Nor did it come close to the soggy but ethereal orchestral experience at Summerstage in June. Again, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the band, who — as usual — poured their hearts out to create a beautiful evening for us. It may well have been the “mixed” audience of devoted fans, casual local rock concert attendees and people with an annual subscription to the symphony (and I sincerely hope that latter group weren’t put off from checking out the band further). Mostly I just felt bad for Airborne. A group of people so hard-working, talented and sincere deserve undivided attention. For the sake of all the true fans in attendance, I hope my experience was “unique.”
This leads me into another contemplation, of Airborne’s metamorphosis from barroom indie band to wider success. I won’t say mainstream because they’re really not (and they’re certainly not playing stadiums), although some of their audience paradoxically is, meaning that they’re mentioned alongside such names as Muse, Coldplay, Kings of Leon and Blink-182. But that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is that at some point, while people were falling in love with this band, hero worship and what I’ll call “competitive fandom” began to rise up from just simply an enjoyment and appreciation of their music.
As I sat trying to listen to Airborne and the world-class Pacific Symphony, it occurred to me that rock bands are a unique animal unto themselves, in that they elicit strong emotions that can take curious forms. Symphony orchestras don’t have this problem. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that the BSO has people bragging about how they’ve seen the ensemble over 40 times. Or boasting about being the proud owner of conductor Seiji Ozawa’s sweaty towel. Nor, during their concert performances, does a drunken audience member shriek out “I LOVE YOU, MALCOLM!!” midway through an especially tender passage from first violinist Malcolm Lowe. No, they sit in respectful reverence and only upon the piece’s dramatic conclusion will anyone dare applaud, for fear of being immediately ostracized. If the music is emotionally moving, you might hear a heartfelt “Bravo!” or two. Why aren’t rock bands afforded the same respect? Screaming in wild abandon between songs and maybe during instrumental bridges is one thing (which New York City audiences have down to a perfectly timed science), but what I saw in Costa Mesa was quite another. Mind you, there were small pockets of respectful, rapt audience members here and there. One example was the woman in front of me who, upon hearing me comment “if you love Mikel so much, why do you keep screaming at him while he’s singing? That’s not very loving,” turned around laughing, nodding her agreement.
It’s been a very strange journey with The Airborne Toxic Event aboard their majestic schooner, as they navigate treacherous seas. In my rickety crows nest, I gaze out to the ocean and wonder what’s next.
Coming up next: time with friends, a “soon to be on Broadway” play reading and a beautiful hike in Solstice Canyon.
Late to the saga? Catch up on what you’ve missed ~ Lost and Found: A Los Angeles story of madness and awakening (in twelve parts) ~ Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Part IXshare this: