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Live review: Airborne Toxic Event at Walt Disney Concert Hall

December 6, 2009 |  3:13 pm

After a meteoric rise, it's a dazzling homecoming for the L.A. quintet, who filled the "really big room' with genuine warmth and ambition.

Airbornetoxic_1
 
Coming home is a recurring theme in pop music, but Los Angeles must have looked a little different to the Airborne Toxic Event on Friday, as the band stood on the elegant stage of a sold-out Walt Disney Concert Hall. The quintet's return to base follows a dazzling two-year rise, not far removed from its days as an unknown act on the local club scene.

This wasn't just another gig to singer-guitarist Mikel Jollett, who aimed to fill "this really big room" with a performance of genuine warmth and ambition. "This is really weird, right?" he asked, as if talking to a roomful of friends who'd joined the band for a night of cultural trespassing.

From the group's self-titled debut were the radio hits ("Wishing Well" and "Sometime Around Midnight"), still weighted with sadness and hope, unfolding at Disney with the help of many musical reinforcements. Throughout the two-hour concert, the Airborne Toxic Event was joined by the strings of the Calder Quartet, then the Belmont High School Marching Band, a children's choir, mariachi players and Mexican folklore dancers, among others.

Airbornetoxic_2  As band violinist-singer Anna Bulbrook took a tender lead on "This Losing," Jollett stepped back from the microphone and his anxious acoustic guitar strumming to take in the scene, with a beaming expression of wonder and disbelief at his epic surroundings.

There were times when the band's efforts were swallowed up in the big room. It is a long way from Spaceland and the El Rey Theatre to the landmark Disney Hall, yet the group usually found its way back through sheer energy and invention.

During "Happiness Is Overrated," two pairs of horn players rose from the balconies flanking the stage to inject the ballad with brassy fervor. And following an intermission, Airborne Toxic Event marched to the stage with the uniformed Belmont players and ignited the Ramones' "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?"

The rapid success this year of the band suggests the clubs of Echo Park and Silver Lake remain vibrant, essential laboratories for new rock music, following the recent hometown successes Silversun Pickups and Cold War Kids. Though his band occasionally has been ridiculed by critics for lifting familiar indie-rock formulas for its sound, Jollett and his obsessions seem less purely musical than emotional and literary. 

He is a songwriter in the classic mode, less a Thom Yorke than perhaps a John Prine, with lyrics rooted in real and imagined tragedy and discontentment. Those songs sent the band on some dark musical journeys across its debut album. On "This Is Nowhere," Jollett sang, "I can't bear to sit here and drink myself sick again. Another night when everything I know was just a lie."

He dedicated the Magnetic Fields song "The Book of Love" to his grandmother, who had hoped to attend the homecoming show, he said, but died just a week before. He sang movingly: "I love it when you sing to me and you can sing me anything."

The sound of his voice and the band filled the room with a rich, engaging personality, whatever their influences. By the end of the night, the Airborne Toxic Event had brought back all the string players, dancers, mariachi musicians and child singers for an encore of "Missy," one final song openly engaged with life experience and delivered within the comforts of home.

--Steve Appleford

Photo: Mikel Jollett, top, and Anna Bulbrook. Credits: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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