screams, whispers and songs from planet earth

The East Coast in June with The Airborne Toxic Event ~ feverish devotion in three flavors

SummerStage in Central Park, New York City

SummerStage in Central Park, New York City

In my attempt to tell the story of a bleary and beautiful three days of travel underscored by the music of The Airborne Toxic Event, it occurs to me that the backdrops were dramatically different and provided a glimpse into three distinct East Coast ecosystems. What links them all together is a relatively new emergence of a rabidly devoted — and slowly growing — community of fans. The beautifully written and exquisitely performed new songs from Such Hot Blood have been embraced like dear old friends and added to the communal singalong repertoire in this rock ‘n’ roll moveable feast.

The Calder Quartet at SummerStage

The Calder Quartet at SummerStage

SummerStage Concert Series, Central Park, New York City ~ June 18

glamorous, traditional, epic, sophisticated orchestral elegance

My initial “glass half empty” assessment of The Airborne Toxic Event, The Calder Quartet and Ensemble LPR’s Central Park, New York City SummerStage performance was, “Damn, why the hell did it have to rain!? There would have been so many more people at that show, so much bigger a buzz, so many more families, new fans” etc. But what became abundantly clear is 1) there is nothing this band can’t do, and with an astonishing amount of power and grace, and 2) there is no quantity of torrential rain their fans won’t stand in, lining up hours in advance, to see them play. Even the SummerStage organizers were surprised that as many people turned up as they did given the inclement weather.

It was an evening of shiver-inducing delights. There was the brilliance of the Calder Quartet’s breathtaking classical set among the trees, the rain dropping to a drizzle, the air warm and the sound crisp. There was Daren joining the Quartet for a completely unexpected and astonishing experimental piece. There were the Ensemble LPR performers, who brought a richness to the band’s rock ‘n’ roll songs, turning them into even larger symphonic masterpieces. And there was Airborne themselves, who always rise to the occasion to become fully immersed in the experience, whether it’s a scrappy rock show in a sweaty club, an early-in-the-day acoustic session at some radio station or an elaborately composed and orchestrated 30+ person extravaganza… in Central Park… in the rain. There was the set list, which included not only the songs that are obvious orchestral pieces — All At Once, All I Ever Wanted, Timeless, Safe, The Storm, Sometime Around Midnight — but quieter, more intimate moments that one didn’t expect in such surroundings, making them all the more special. This included “All For A Woman” with Noah on lead guitar and Steven on upright bass, which isn’t regularly performed anymore, and a beautiful new song, “Dublin,” which is as yet unreleased (it will be on the European edition of Such Hot Blood that comes out, according to in the UK, on September 30). There was “This Losing” and “Half of Something Else” and “Letter To Georgia,” and a deliriously happy and very wet audience singing along to every song.


The Airborne Toxic Event at Lupo's in Providence

The Airborne Toxic Event at Lupo's in Providence

Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, “Downcity” in Providence, RI ~ June 19

scrappy, downtown, classy/trashy rock ‘n’ roll interpretation of an Indian sweat lodge

It couldn’t have been a more stark contrast. From the elegance of Central Park, a full orchestra and the highly-esteemed SummerStage summer concert series, to downtown Providence, Rhode Island’s esteemed loud and scrappy rock club, Lupo’s. With two opening bands, a crazed (and inebriated) crowd and the space-time rupturing tribal fury of The Joy Formidable setting the tone, there was no question it would be an interesting evening. Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, with its elegant grand ballroom interior and in its third Providence incarnation, is the site of The Strand vaudeville theater dating back to 1915, after which was another former life as an adult movie house. That’s all you need to know, really. Everything makes perfect sense after that.

Nashville-based Leagues opened, rocking out and perfectly ok, but giving no real indication of what dangers lie ahead. That was not the case with the Welsh Cerberus, The Joy Formidable. I don’t recall any “warm-up” period. All I remember is something visceral, tribal and intense; a musical maelstrom that was unleashed and which swept everyone up in its wake. It was this pounding aural heartbeat that moved through you like an especially demanding and possessive incubus. Left frenzied and wild-eyed, we awaited Airborne.

We all enjoyed The Joy Formidable's tribal, spirit-summoning performance

We all enjoyed The Joy Formidable's tribal, spirit-summoning performance

So what can I say? Only that the audience’s emotional outpouring has finally reached the point where it strives to match what comes off the stage at any Airborne show. It began in New York back in January with the shaking floor and chanted lyrics — and that would be all of them, from the radio singles to the quieter and more obscure (who ever envisioned “The Graveyard Near The House” being a Kumbaya-like singalong?). In Providence, it was no different, the desperate urgency of an East Coast metropolis nicely feeding into the desperate urgency in their songs. From the first notes of “Gasoline,” they grabbed hold of this intensity around the throat and didn’t let go throughout the powerful (and quite frankly, exhausting) set. And I mean exhausting in a good way. In the middle of all that somewhere Noah proved once again that everything sounds better with a mandolin. “True Love,” in all honesty, was not really one of my favorites from the new album, but the plucky tease of that mandolin saves it in a big way. There are so many little musical touches like that, perhaps late additions to songs during the recording process, that add something immensely special.

The band’s intense performance was punctuated by a young female fan’s father who, overcome by the emotionally over-the-top, claustrophobic delirium, passed out cold on the floor at front center stage in the middle of the show, and an inebriated banshee who made it her mission to spill full drinks on about a dozen people and ended by coiling herself around me like a rope during “Graveyard Near the House,” the reason for which still confounds me. More amusing than annoying, it only added to the Fellini-esque vibe.

It's still Northern Lights to me - Clifton Park, NY

It's still Northern Lights to me - Clifton Park, NY

Upstate Concert Hall, Clifton Park, NY ~ June 20

cleaned up with a new sign but still a delightful skanky backwoods little dive and an emotional final show of The Tour, Round 1.

One missing gas cap, one disappearing exit, about 15 hours of driving in 2-1/2 days and a sandwich I started eating in Providence later, I pulled into the recently renovated Upstate Concert Hall, the club formerly known as Northern Lights. As it turns out, all they did was change the sign on the front and clean it up a bit, thank god. I’m pleased to report that it’s still the same ol’ small-town dive bar with a questionable sound system in a strip mall, bless their hearts. As before, it was well worth the 3-1/2 hour drive from Boston, even though I missed the exit in a confusing concrete jungle of construction and ended up taking the (much longer) scenic route through the back way.

It may have been the fatigue (mine and the band’s), it may have been the concert-deprived upstate New York teenagers, or it may have been the final night of the Spring tour in a place that’s low key and doesn’t matter a whole lot in terms of media attention so you can be free and loose with it — but this one was f*cking emotional. As with all the recent shows I’ve been to, I was surrounding by people seeing the band for their first time. Judging from the single-organism swaying mass by night’s end, I’d say we have some new fans to add to the increasingly long list.

We were treated to “Goodbye Horses” (this is a huge crowd favorite — everyone loved it), both “Bride and Groom and “Elizabeth” (which hardly ever happens), and “Missy” turned up to the party wearing vintage clothes. The usual Cash/Springsteen/Petty covers, which in all honesty are getting a tad threadbare, were replaced for this night only with the wonderfully nostalgic and simply marvelous Smiths songs, “Ask” and “Panic.” And may I just say here that Mikel was ferocious, though how much of that was face-pummeling fatigue fueled by copious amounts of scotch, I cannot say. Some people are inspired to be at their best when all systems begin to shut down. It’s also the sort of time when one is apt to get sentimental. He introduced and thanked their entire stage crew, assistants and tour manager Bill, bringing folks up on stage to loud cheers. He also gave a beautiful speech at the end which I wish I had captured; hopefully someone did. He spoke of how this particular tour had been incredibly special and, paraphrasing here, that it was ‘the most intense and rewarding experience of his life’ and that it had to do with the connection they had with their audience. Yes indeed.

For those who, no matter how much they get, can’t get enough, it appears that “The Such Hot Blood Tour, Round 2” might well be starting in September, with some UK/European shows to follow. We’re awaiting specifics. Get on their mailing list to keep informed.

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1 Comment

  1. Julie – Another well written and heartfelt review as always. Why didn’t I go to Clifton Park? I LOVE that dive-y bar!! Can’t wait for September!

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