It is an odd paradox. The Airborne Toxic Event’s audience is getting larger, the hardcore fans more rabid, so many are now singing their praises; and yet, people seem to be actually hearing them less.
At the tiny Pianos on NYC’s Lower East Side last Monday night, Mikel tried to joke about the situation – “Oh, I see the bar’s open… well, it wouldn’t be an Airborne show..”, but it had to suck for them. Eight days in to a 15-day-straight run of shows before a single day off, they were all visibly exhausted, and Mikel had observed a 24-hour “vocal silence” of no talking before the show, in order to preserve his voice. The setlist was drastically altered in favor of quieter ballads instead of vocal chord-straining all-out rockers, and that – along with sweet, sentimental introductions in between every song – should have made this an unusual and very special time for their most loyal fans. There were stories of the early days before Airborne – Mikel’s upstairs neighbor banging on the floor to get him to stop playing, and of previous band members saying “your band’s never going to make it.” Of dragging a broken amp down Ludlow Street, and thanking Pianos for “giving them a shot.” About their first single, “Girls In Their Summer Dresses,” and the tiny label that released it, Square Records. Of all the support they’ve received, the many letters, and the connection with their audience. It should have been an evening of beautiful music and shared experience. Except that the cast of Jersey Shore was in attendance that night.
An inebriated gentleman directly behind me kept yelling out (as in 10 or 12 times), “I love you Mikel!” (who first responded with “I love you too, buddy,” but after about the 8th time, “Yes, I think we’ve established that.” This neanderthal, though professing his love for Mikel, proceeded to sing loudly enough (and out of tune) to nearly drown him out. My quiet requests, desperate pleas, then repeated kicks to the shins, did nothing to stop this. “Please, I came to hear him sing, not you.” “Can’t you tell I don’t care?” Thanks. [Note: I couldn’t bear to actually embed this video, but you can see it on YouTube, if you don’t believe me…]
So when did Airborne’s fans become a bunch of knuckle-draggers? Has this been a slow and steady transition, one which I am only just now noticing? When Mikel politely asked one guy if he could please be quiet while he tried to speak, he was answered back with “I have one night, dude.” Excuse me? You’ve only going to this one show, so you want to be as noisy as possible so you can’t hear the band (this part I just don’t get at all), and screw all the rest of us? Hey, I drove down from Boston for this show, dude. One fan flew in from Germany, dude. I hate to break it to you, dude, but it isn’t just about you. And what about the band? Maybe a little respect is in order for a hard-working group of people who are here tonight 3,000 miles from home, sharing with you some quality songwriting and sophisticated musicianship in a living room-sized Lower East Side club. [Note to Pianos: This was was my first time in your legendary indie rock band incubator, and man, is it ever awesome. I’ll be back!]
An interesting thing is happening, and for all the annoyance of anticipating these two shows for months, then being confronted with this lack of respect (the crowd at the Mercury Lounge was a little better), I leave this experience with my already soaring admiration for this band about 10,000 times greater. Because despite the blind and deaf mob (not all of course, but enough to set the tone in a small room, and that crass album cover could not be more appropriate), the band is becoming more serious. Way more serious. Serious about their music, their message, and especially their commitment to each other. In an unguarded moment after the show, Anna spoke of her admiration for Mikel, how he “puts himself on the line” – not just in the physical sense of being the band’s front man, but emotionally, as the words he sings are of such a personal nature; a window into his soul. Well, that last bit is mine, and I’m paraphrasing here, but she went on to say how it’s a good thing he decided to put together a band, so he didn’t have to be “out there” on his own as a solo artist; that the others could be there for him and support him. I knew they all felt that way, it’s obvious in every interview and in the way they play together, but to hear it expressed like that was deeply moving. That’s the great thing about being so damned weary – people will say the most extraordinary things.
I’m reminded of Mikel’s early description of the band’s camaraderie as “a group of siblings stranded on a desert island”. This is even more true now, as the water rises, more treacherous and perilous, with outside pressures that could threaten even the strongest spirit, clearest vision, and greatest resolve. People’s misinterpretations of what the band represents, what they’re about, the strange “projections” that come from widespread radio airplay and increasing success. Yes, bands are broken up because of drugs and crazy lifestyles, but also because of growing egos stoked by gushing adulation and hollow promises; a lost sense of direction. True success happens on one’s own terms; not to buy in to all the bullshit is the greatest challenge.
The Mercury Lounge was also no happy hippie fest, but for entirely different reasons. For one, no one told me it was hardcore punk night. This might seem like a curious choice for Airborne’s support act – except that Noah’s cousin is the lead guitarist. What’s even more interesting, I recall that when they played the Fillmore West in San Francisco back… well, back when, “Noah’s cousin’s punk band” supported them. And now I find out – it was a different cousin, and a different punk band! (must be something in the genes?). In any case, when the lead singer of State of Decline lounged out on the stage – mohawk and tattoos, eating his dinner before their set, with a young drunken blond promptly hitting on him – I knew it was going to be an interesting evening.
(actual overhead conversation): “What band are you in?… so where’s the afterparty?” | “Do you have any coke? That would make me very happy” | (she leans over and kisses him) | “I can see down your shirt” (she doesn’t seem to mind)
State of Decline were… ok. Crazy antics from the lead singer, with people at the front cautiously keeping their distance as he swung his mic stand inches from their heads. There was a kind of “sameness” to all the songs; nothing terribly distinguishing. Noah’s cousin (I’d provide a name, but I can’t find more than a mention of this band online) did a few songs on his own at the start. A vocalist he’s not. But he’s a decent guitarist, and the songs were such that.. well, from what I could make out, I’d say there’s some potential, but he’d be better off going it alone or with a different band. Sorry guys, just my humble opinion. It was all cool, though, I managed not to get whacked with that mic stand, and it was actually quite a bit of fun. What wasn’t cool was when a friend of theirs, this skinny junkie with bleached out white hair, decided he would climb up on stage and lunge off, hurling himself into the front few “rows”. I have nothing whatsoever against crowd surfing, but there are nights to do this, and nights not to. This really wasn’t that sort of crowd, nor were any of them expecting it, so those who had fast reflexes stepped back quickly, leaving him to land hard on the concrete floor, taking out a few unfortunate folks with him.
After a broken mic stand, food spilled all over the front monitors, and an audience shaking their heads, thinking “what the f*ck??”, Airborne took to the stage and ripped through a considerably more rocking set than the night before. Mikel’s voice seemed stronger, the band more energetic, and they hit the ground running with “Papillon”, and wailed through a marvelous version of “The Kids Are Ready To Die” (the punk version, of course), leading gorgeously into “Welcome To Your Wedding Day”. A nice mix of old and new, fast and furious, changing things up completely from the low-key evening at Pianos. “Innocence” finished off the main set, sounding just wonderful, and with less interruption during the exquisite intro than what I was expecting. There was again a surprising element in the crowd, nowhere near as obnoxious as the night before, but still not what I remember of Airborne Tox fans as recent as last year.
For an encore, they launched into “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”, though Mikel, warily eyeing a few over-exuberant girls in the front who immediately started grabbing at his legs as soon as he came to the edge of the stage, wisely decided against wading in this time. And despite (or because of) the aforementioned floozy, who was now shrieking for “Missy”, they instead closed the evening with “All At Once”.
Fortunately, it seems the audience improved as the week went on (or at least, the handful of amateur drunks got “absorbed” in larger audiences), which I’m glad to hear for those who were able to see all five NYC shows. It’s a shame though, and perhaps an indication that you can never really go home again. Everything has changed. Viewed from a distance, I suppose it’s just part of the band’s evolution. Some things are lost, some things are gained, life goes on. Bring on the All At Once tour.
Night #1 Tonight: Philadelphia, The Trocadero;
Wednesday, May 11 – Boston, House of Blues – tix still available.