This is to be a tale about an epic performance in a big hall, and those little things that most people will never notice. The massive preparation and myriad of minute details of a touring rock ‘n’ roll band, and the inexplicable magic of people reaching a place of connection in a piece of music.
A Grand Production
It’s obvious that a lot of forethought goes into The Airborne Toxic Event’s live shows. There’s the planning of the set list, which on this current tour to support their new release, Such Hot Blood, seems to mutate not only to keep things fresh for the band and for the “frequent flyers” in the audience, but also to reflect particular local favorites and tweeted requests as they come along. Additionally, set lists are adjusted “on the fly” to accommodate mood shifts and atmospheric changes in the venue. Seriously. You rarely if ever see that level of attentiveness on the part of a touring musician. For a full stage performance like the House of Blues in Boston, there’s the stage set, which for the last few tours has been minimalist but incorporating the emotionally-charged, instantly recognizable symbols from their debut album. Those leafless winter trees and the injured bird who flies bravely on despite being pierced through by one of life’s arrows are a metaphor for the band’s central theme of enduring hardship and dancing through disaster. There’s even synchronized lighting, which helps turn a cool rock show into musical theater, complementing the orchestral arrangements and poetic lyrics and visuals. All of it comes together to bring the audience along on an emotional journey. Each song is a mini soundtrack unto itself for a loosely choreographed act of a play where band members move between instruments, interacting with the fans and with each other. Nothing less would be fitting to introduce such a dramatic and emotional album.
The Boston show was a full-on theatrical performance in every sense of the word. Like a wild stallion bolting out from the starting gate, they launched right into frenetic old favorites — “Gasoline,” “Happiness Is Overrated” and “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” Not that they had to. Often a band will introduce new songs gingerly into a set list, though in this case, there’s no need for concern. Fans have been ingesting Such Hot Blood nonstop since it came out on April 30. But they hadn’t played in Boston since November 2011 and so emotions were running high, fueled by a few well-known and well-loved songs. Feeding off the frenzy, Mikel departed from the stage and the set list to serenade the mezzanine with “Something New.” Somehow this band manages to ace the visceral and edgy “anything-can-happen” sweaty rock show experience, while at the same time staging an elaborate Broadway musical with a Cirque du Soleil component. I’m not quite sure how they do this. But on this night at the Boston House of Blues, Mikel slowly made his way around the outside edge of the mezzanine as he sang “what’s passed these hands, all these drugs and one-night-stands…” like some demented supper club lounge singer.
It’s always been Mikel’s way, to bring every person in the vast hall into the performance, creating a feeling of intimacy in whatever venue they’re playing. Whether perched from some precarious ledge up in the rafters, or sitting on the barrier and making eye contact while he sings to those in the front rows, Mikel really knows how to engage people. He then segued into their first song from the new album, “True Love,” by doing a really dangerous flying trapeze maneuver to get to the upper balcony, whilst simultaneously and quite smoothly making a set list change from 50 feet up in the air and a football field distance away from his band mates. “True Love,” a lighthearted, mandolin-driven little ditty about an all-consuming love obsession, was then delivered, gargoyle-like, from halfway between the mezzanine level and upper balcony, holding onto god knows what.
Back on stage and after a rollicking “Changing,” Airborne dropped the vibe down to something sweet and intimate, with Mikel on acoustic guitar, Steven on piano, Anna on viola, Daren on light percussion and Noah with his upright bass for a stunning version of “Bride and Groom.” One of my personal favorites from the new album, it was a special treat to hear it played. Judging from the audience reaction, my guess is that this song, along with “Elizabeth” (which wasn’t played in Boston but was the next night in Vermont) is destined to join those quieter unexpected fan favorites, like “Graveyard Near The House,” “Duet” and “A Letter To Georgia”) that are frequent show requests.
The other new songs were each given special treatment with all the delicacy and complexity of the album versions, translating even more beautifully to the stage. There was “Safe” with its slow build of piano, viola and light percussion, Mikel deep in the moment of reliving a conversation between estranged lovers. Anna’s turn at lead vocals sounds especially ethereal in person. They moved directly into “The Storm,” and it’s equally personal and passionate. As deeply touching these pretty ballads are on the album, in a live setting they’re overwhelming. Like “Safe,” “The Storm” starts out quiet and slowly builds into a thing of majestic beauty, then drops back down to end with that simple and elegant piano melody. Just gorgeous. “Timeless” is as transcendent as I remember it from the New York shows in January. Boston got a special treat, with “The Fifth Day” performed as the first song of the encore. The focal point of this beautiful, incredibly dramatic piece are Anna and Mikel’s vocals, and again it feels like it should be part of a theatrical stage production. Singing together, those two sound like a pair of light and dark angels. I greatly prefer this song live, as its musical grandeur comes right out at you, and in place of the synthesized vocals at the end, we were treated to Anna and Mikel’s lovely, unadorned voices — and dual whistling!
To illustrate the amount of thought and preparation that went into just that one song for that one performance, Mikel asked me afterwards if I thought the lighting looked ok. He seemed concerned that it didn’t come off quite as they’d planned. Still breathless and completely overwhelmed by swirling emotions, I tried my best to put his mind at ease, saying that the lights were great. To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. I could see this meant a great deal to him and they probably spent considerable time and effort putting it all together. Let me put it this way:
Picture yourself on a majestic vessel with sails unfurled. You’re being swept along in a raging sea, the music like waves crashing against the ship and washing over you. They’re soul cleansing, mixing with and fortifying the blood in your veins, making you feel like you are at one with the flowing tides of the universe. At that moment, the captain comes over and asks if you noticed that he polished the railings. Or, to summarize, “Lights? There were lights?”
As an eloquent statement of how far they’ve come as a band, “Wishing Well” — an old favorite and the first song that Mikel ever wrote — was given a brand new outfit to wear for the evening. The dual keyboards and extended synth-laced instrumental arrangement gives the song an entirely different feel and takes it far away from Mikel’s single-room apartment where it was first conceived. It was a night of grand gestures and delightful little surprises, with Mikel hanging out and holding court for well over an hour after the show ended.
A Small and Sweaty Rock Show
In poignant contrast to the grand scale of the previous night in Boston, Airborne’s Higher Ground gig in Burlington, Vermont was a sweaty little rock show. From the small, stripped-down stage to the looser, more intimate and more rocking feel, the show oozed down-home New England charm as much as the Boston show glimmered with big-city sleekness. Mikel’s good-natured joking about cow-tipping as the region’s primary source of entertainment won the crowd over immediately, and the sold out, packed room and warm singalong atmosphere made it certain they’ll be back soon.
We were given a few treats here, the first of which was the unexpected and deeply appreciated “Goodbye Horses.” I also heard shouted requests for “Papillon” and “Elizabeth,” and to everyone’s delight, both were played. Mikel was genuinely amazed to get a full audience singalong for “Elizabeth,” saying something like, “That was awesome. How does everyone already know the words to that?”
For me, the theme of the Boston show was “big theatrical production,” whereas here in Vermont, it was “the little things that matter.” Waiting for first Kodaline and then Airborne, as I listened to French chatter from the Montreal contingent around me, I watched with newfound admiration while the road crew quickly scrambled around the stage, setting things up, as Airborne’s road manager, Bill, saw to little details. I spent the time marveling at the countless little things that go into the most basic band set up. From amp and mic placement to instrument stands and tuning, and the myriad of things that can go wrong in less than acoustically perfect rooms. There’s the sheer amount of hard work to construct and then deconstruct a stage set for a few hours of music in some random little town. And repeat. It’s like this for every band around the world, of course, only for some reason it hit me harder that night, and there was something about the intense focus and care taken to get everything just right that was really impressive. There was a sense of pride.
Enjoying the after-show afterglow on a cool Vermont spring evening, I contemplated these things and the unglamorous side of touring life. I watched the crew loading the trailer, and it occurred to me that while I was sleeping in and enjoying a laid-back Sunday in the cool little town of Burlington, they’d be on the highway all night, pulling in to Camden, New Jersey around 8 a.m. for a mid afternoon set at a radio station festival. Respect.
Understanding the Magic
In the past year or so, and especially with the release of Such Hot Blood, an interesting phenomenon has developed. There’s this symbiotic relationship that has formed between Airborne and their audience. They’ve always been popular and their shows were always fun, celebratory events. But there’s a whole new level of loyalty and commitment now that seems to go in both directions. From Airborne’s side, it’s the attention to details, whether that means painstakingly crafting their new album over the course of a year, or engaging fans with online chats and informal “meet & greets” after shows. This special treatment has not gone unnoticed, and their fans return it in kind.
People can sense sincerity. It’s Mikel’s introspective, deeply personal — and completely relatable — lyrics, and the entire band’s accessibility and kindness. It emanates from Mikel but spreads to their entire organization. As it’s often said, you reap what you sow. Airborne shows, more than ever before, are multi-generational, emotionally-overwhelming singalong love fests. Every person who sees the band for the first time comes to the next show with friends and family in tow. It is in this way that the band’s popularity has grown and will continue to do so, organically. And then there’s the tattoos. What started as a few hardcore aficionados turning up with tats of the bird and arrow symbol has grown into an ocean of Airborne-inspired body art — everything from album artwork to entire verses of songs. Their new album was immediately embraced like a long lost lover. Airborne songs have found their way onto the playlists of weddings and funerals, their music becoming the soundtrack of people’s lives, giving solace and courage. It’s very special, and not something that Airborne — or their fans — take lightly.
Boston, House of Blues
Burlington, Higher Ground