Concert Review: The Airborne Toxic Event Exhilarates the Music Box


Up into Hollywood, climbing streets, dodging pedestrians and stopped cars, I went. Only a few hours ago, it feels like years. Paid a stranger to take my car—strange, when you put it like that. I stood in front of The Music Box’s bright marquee where it read THE AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT.

Down into dim light, breathing lightly, weaving through people and ushers, I went. Onto a checkered floor which would later be littered with crushed cups and painted with a sticky film. The crowd stood humming with chatter as it always does. Strange faces and things on walls—I’m dreaming in this place, a nightmare? Perspectives skewing and faces laughing? I’m awake and the light dims and the crowd roars and the heavy blue curtain rises in scallops. Five people take their places and the song begins and the lights are purple with secret expectations. Mikel Jollett opens his mouth and sings the first words to “Numb” from the new album All At Once (read my review here) and I smile and everyone else smiles. I have missed this voice. The ooo’s and the high-pitched guitars and the running drums and his honey thick voice, they wash over everything.


It was 2009 and I drove alone. New to the city with no direction—literally, I was lost. In route to the Echoplex, where am I? Driving in circles around Echo Park, fearful I will miss the show. Finally, frantically, I find my way and I enter the dim club and a few minutes later I see them for the first time and they’re so close and I can cheer and sing and no one can hear me. They play “Something Around Midnight” and “Something New” and “Missy” and my heart throbs and they play “Innocence” and my heart stops. I hang around after the show and go talk to Mikel who is friendly and genial. I say something stupid with a shaky voice and I make my way back to my car and drive home, listening to “Innocence” again and again. Tears dry on my cheeks.

I look around now. The red keyboard sits on stacked books; white umbrellas hang upside down from the rafters above the stage. The white accents on the bands’ clothing glow, electric under ultraviolet light. Anna Bullbrook has really tight leather pants on and she looks like Sandy from Grease but without a perm. She is attractive. She hangs and bobs her head while she spreads her fingers across keys, possessed by some sort of aching passion.

No pausing as the band heads straight into “All I’ve Ever Wanted.” The song is slow then fast and the crowd jumps and the violin jumps and the sticks run on cymbals and the bass is fleeing and I can’t hear Mikel all too well but it’s ok because the energy is intoxicating.

Then it stops, he stops, Mikel, and he walks to the keyboard. He plays glittering notes, glittering keys and broad guitar riffs yell and then the bass drum the bass drum thumps and thumps and “Wishing Well” is alive. Smoky fingertips graze the stage hauntingly in the blue light. And the bass drum thumps. The next song begins, “This Losing”, and the vintage piano or organ I’mnotsosure is played and bassist Noah Harmon plays his bass with a bow and there is jamming, lots of jamming.

Mikel croons out the next song, “Book of Love”—a cover by Magnetic Fields. (I do some research and realize this is for his grandmother. This is an emotional track for him.) I swoon. My notes say, “Oh, Mikel…” The band plays another song, Mikel tells us it is based a short story and it’s called “Girls in Summer Dresses.”


Mikel is a real writer, by the way—whatever that means. Before he began The Airborne Toxic Event, he contributed to various publications and had a short story (“The Crack”) published. The other band members are equally as impressive. Anna, Noah, and guitarist/keyboardist Steven Chen are all classically trained multi-instrumentalists who swapped instruments throughout the set. The band has all sorts of musical and professional backgrounds, which gives them a sense of depth and dimension.

Anyways. Back to the haze and chill. Next up is “All for a Woman.” Sensual, looming; the guitar is some beautiful woman, silhouetted in full form throughout the entire song and through a solo that is reeling and perfect. “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing” is fun as the band merrily and casually switches instruments. More dainty keys over quick strummed basslines resound and I’m wondering if this is “Sometime Around Midnight.” It is quicker and more thoughtful but still reminiscent of that filling feeling. It is “Half of Something Else”.

Mikel thanks his producer Dave Sardy, whom is in attendance this evening and is apparently “very sarcastic.” Then gruff riffs in time with bass kicks and cymbals clangs thunder out and quickly die and Mikel growls into the silence: “And speaking of, Little Miss Kath-er-ine, I feel swell, oo-oo-oh well…” Suddenly the crowd is alive at this song they know and love (“Happiness is Overrated”) and the band is smiling at the crowd’s reaction and everyone’s yelling and laughing and I’m not taking notes because I’m too busy jumping and singing and moving. Keeping with the first album energy Mikel sits on the edge of the stage as they move into “Gasoline”. The crowd is enamored.

The next song is the new single from All at Once, “Changing”. The crowd, of course, goes wild for that undeniable hook: “I AM a gentleMAN didn’t I…” “Goodbye Horses” comes next and I reach my low point for the show. The song is boring and seems to drag on and on—maybe I am still engrossed by that painfully catchy hook but this felt void of emotion, which, believe me, is a rare thing for Airborne. Mikel then talks a little in a perfect raspy voice to introduce “The Kids Are Ready to Die”—most memorable is his saying “[You] can’t send kids to die for somebody’s lie.” The angry ballad, if anything, has been made Mikel Jollet’s bitch, beginning with “Sometime Around Midnight” and continuing with this song. He has perfected a sympathizing and brooding angst. The band, much to my delight, finally plays my favorite track off the new album, “Welcome to Your Wedding Day”, which is revitalizing in a hell-yeah, Green Day sort of way.

The inevitable “Sometime Around Midnight” is played and of course the crowd goes wild. Something unfortunately feels off—something is out of pitch. The keys that seem to have been set in some sort of loop? Anna walks around the stage, puzzled, while the rest of the band presses through with the occasional questioning glance. The crowd, however, is unfazed.

Mikel then begins to sing something unrecognizable but then it’s recognizable and it is the intro to “Innocence” but with words with a new intro and I am ecstatic because I love this song. After four or so minutes of pure ecstasy they finish and walk off with hundreds of hands clapping behind them.


And the clapping doesn’t stop for a solid three minutes and a very fat old man behind me is banging his cane on the floor and whooping and of course they come back out and they launch into “Papillion” and it’s plain awesome. The encore is a blur of bass solos and Anna crowd surfing with tambourine in hand and “Missy” and shout-outs to LA and more specifically to the Mexicans of LA (this got lots of cheers) and to Mikel’s grandmother and an introduction of each of the band members and a discussion about drummer Daren Taylor’s moustache and it finishes with “All At Once” and the crowd roars. The curtain closes but Mikel stays and is swarmed with fans and the venue clears and the checkered floor is sticky with beer and littered with crushed cups.


Check their tour schedule here, or catch their next show (after their LA shows) in Frisco, TX on April 30th at Pizza Hut Park. Get tickets here.
Also, be sure to read my review of All At Once.