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The Airborne Toxic Event played at the Orpheum Theater last weekend.
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The Airborne Toxic Event

The Orpheum Theater

November 19, 2011

The Airborne Toxic Event (TATE) has seen the spotlight this past year. They performed on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, were selected for the soundtrack of summer romantic comedy hit Crazy Stupid Love, and even made a cameo appearance on the season finale of Gossip Girl — and a cameo on Gossip Girl can mark the beginning of an indie band’s journey to mainstream fame.

Despite increased exposure, TATE remains largely unknown to the masses. While blasting TATE’s “Something New” in my suite kitchen, a freshman burst into my suite. Gesturing excitedly to the music behind him he spluttered, “You like The Airborne Toxic Event too?! Wait, are they getting big now?” Assuring him that their fan base remained a modest size, I mused to myself that there was a kindred bond between TATE fans. In fact, this bond exists for followers of many American indie rock bands. While you want their music to be recognized and appreciated, you are also torn by the desire to protect them from the claws of mainstream media for fear of their style being altered to cater to mainstream tastes.

TATE has recently signed with major record label Island Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, and boasting billboard tops Justin Bieber and The Killers. But the band’s live performance proved them to be less diva and more grounded, merely a group of a friends who loved their music and loved to play it.

At the Orpheum Theater earlier this month, Mikel Jollett, the frontman, was both charismatic and exuberant. With a infectious boyish charm, Jollett made the concert a personal experience, introducing the band members with nicknames and epithets. There was no sense of pretension or formalism. Don’t get me wrong — despite his roots as a freelance writer, Jollett is still very much the showman. A third of the way into the TATE concert, Jollett climbed from the stage to the box seats of the Orpheum and then proceeded to nimbly climb the railings. Half-giggling at his own antics and half-crooning out the lyrics, Jollett made sure the audience was enraptured with him as he tiptoed and swung from railing to railing.

In addition to Jollett, who showed himself to be a very colorful character, all of his bandmates were just as involved in the music as he was. Much clucking and cat-whistling ensued whenever the violinist and lone female member — Anna Bulbrook, who hails from Boston — soloed. Steven Chen, their guitarist and sometimes-keyboardist, was the foil to Jollett’s animated bubbliness. While Jollett would tease the audience and his band members, Chen would fend off Jollett’s jovial jabs with the endearing seriousness of his guitar. The bassist Noah Harmon was almost as playful as Jollett, and their drummer Daren Taylor was head-bopping in the backdrop. The band was so lively and lovely, with much skipping and climbing onto equipment, that their live performance lent a whimsical air to their music. Almost all of them were constantly in motion. Many instrument swaps occurred, and the performance set really showed the breadth of instruments that went into TATE songs.

The performance hall did wonders for the more acoustic-heavy songs. “Innocence” was never a personal favorite, but the Orpheum Theater acoustics really highlighted the full-bodied notes of the upright bass, coupled with the echoes of the violin. Songs that featured just Jollett’s breathy sighs and croons also reached a new dimension in the live performance; the broken whispers were especially haunting when amplified to an audience. Many of the songs played in the concert were old-time favorites from their first album — “Something New,” “Sometime Around Midnight,” and the crowd favorite “Wishing Well.”

What really struck me about the TATE concert was the diversity of the audience. While I can wager that a portion of them were probably relatives and close friends of Anna Bullock, the Bostonian violinist, it was still astounding the spectrum of age groups. There was a strong contingency of suburban soccer moms and North Face-decked yuppies. Surprisingly the presence of beanie-capped, flannel-wearing hipsters was minimal, which I had assumed would be the majority of a hip LA band’s fanbase.

Part of the reason that TATE’s music can cater to a broad audience is the universality of their lyrics. They read like poetry, tapping into emotions and situations that many listeners can relate to. Take these lines from their song “Changing”:

And you tell me that you’re scared that you’re turning into your mother
I feel myself turning into my father
As we lie to each other like they do, and say we’re so happy
It’s easy when you’re young and you still want it so badly ….

While the song itself describes the downward spiral of a young relationship and the struggles to salvage it, “Changing” also alludes to other pressures of youth. Although their trademark songs are (in their words) “sad songs about girls,” their new album has more self-reflection and also touches upon political topics. Most of the crowd-pleasers at the concert were the “sad songs about girls” from their eponymous first album. With not one, but two (or was it three?) encores, TATE showed as much affection for their audience as their audience did for them. Grinning, dancing, and skipping to their music, TATE’s live performance provided a dimension to their music beyond the recordings.