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Live review: The Airborne Toxic Event at the Satellite

April 26, 2011 |  1:44 pm


“All I Ever Wanted,” the best song from the Airborne Toxic Event’s forthcoming album, “All at Once,” starts in the same way that many of the band's songs do. A man is lying awake in bed, perhaps with a woman or a stiff drink next to him, and he is worrying about the future. “I can feel myself turning into my father,” singer Mikel Jollett says over a high-neck guitar figure and spacious bassline. Then his troubles turn existential -- “I shudder when I think I might not be here forever.”

These are elemental fears from a songwriter known for wringing four verses and choruses from a split-second sight of an old flame across a barroom. But they’re apt fears. After the band's white-hot rise through the L.A. eastside indie demimonde on the strength of its Smiths-y romantic rock, its 2008 self-titled debut was picked up by Island Records. The album went on to sell a few hundred thousand copies and made the band mainstream stars in Europe and America.

In the leadup to “All at Once,” the band is playing a series of small club dates in L.A. Monday’s kickoff at the Satellite in Silver Lake –- the site of the group's breakthrough residency back in its Club Spaceland days -- underscored the group's potential to be a major new rock band of the decade, but also suggested that some of its qualms about identity aren’t entirely unfounded.

The first signs of change came not from the band, but from the crowd. “There aren’t a lot of you from Silver Lake here,” Jollett noted of the sold-out room. He was right. What Kings of Leon did for sex-dazed Southern rock, Airborne Toxic Event has done for wine-soaked miserablism -- they made it relatable well beyond the American Spirit set.

Of course, the band is well aware of this, and tries to subtly rebut it in its new single, “Changing,” a T. Rex-via-Modest Mouse stomper that promises, “I won’t hear one more word about changing / Guess what, I am the same man, same I’ve always been.” Granted, here’s Jollett telling a lover to take a hike, but the point remains -- the band clearly feels as if its authenticity is under scrutiny today. 

That matters less in the thick of a performance, and instrumentally, the quintet is a barn burner. Drummer Daren Taylor raises the octane of a song like the punkish “The Kids Are Ready to Die” with nimble fills and transitions. Band members make a big show of their adeptness with strings -– Airborne’s played with several symphonies and chamber groups, and violinist Anna Bulbrook and bow-wielding bassist Noah Harmon sawed earnestly during several long intros. But their real drama came from more immediate gestures, such as the syncopated guitar licks of “Numb” that dig like a lover’s fingernails in your back.

Yet at times they couldn’t shake a sense that they’re performing at being themselves. “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing,” Jollett’s narrative account of his hippie parents’ troubled young relationship, was well-intentioned but oversold itself as an L.A.-noir version of “Jack & Diane.” A cover of Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" is sometimes the first symptom of an American male songwriter needing to prove the sincerity of his ennui.

Still, the two crowd favorites they closed their proper set with -- the throat-ripping “Sometime Around Midnight” and the slow burner “Innocence” -- each documented a witty drunkard’s terror that he’s going to die alone. That’s something no Billboard position can cure you of. And at its best, the Airborne Toxic Event can still keep you up at night with a tumbler of bourbon at hand.

-- August Brown

Photo: Airborne Toxic Event. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times