By: Cornel Bonca
The last time Silver Lake rockers The Airborne Toxic Event played Orange County, in August of 2013, it was with an 88-piece orchestra at the massive Pacific Amphitheater. This time around they stripped down to essentials–just the five of them with occasional help on keys and trumpet–at Santa Ana's much more intimate The Observatory. The downsizing of venue was appropriate: Airborne decided to play their much more intimate new album, Songs of God and Whiskey, from start to finish to open the show. A ballsy thing to do, by the way, since the album's material was not only fairly new to fans but also less sonically dramatic or rockin' than stuff like "Sometime Around Midnight" or "Happiness Is Overrated," songs that have sealed Airborne's rep as a sweaty and intense road band.
Not that Songs doesn't deliver. Dropped at the same time as the band's recent "official" Epic release, Dope Machines, and as a complete surprise to everybody, its mostly unplugged folk-based rock is so well-crafted, melodic, and lyrically penetrating–there aren't five better rock lyricists in America right now than bandleader Mikel Jollett–that it never comes off as a slipped-in afterthought or an odds 'n' sods sop to fans. Played live, it also loosened the band up–viola/violinist Anna Bulbrook's typically pristine classical lines got funkier and more fiddle-like, and Steven Chen, usually content to provide expert rhythm guitar and record-sanctioned solo fills, stretched out in a little improvisation. Certainly Jollett felt liberated by the new stuff: the opener, "Poor Isaac," a fist-shaking address to The Almighty, unleashed an almost frightening anger in him, just as "Strangers" and "Why Why Why" revealed a tender acceptance of suffering that came this close to sublime.
The audience was appreciative if not ecstatic during the album's run-through, and it's a testament to Airborne's willingness to challenge themselves that afterwards they didn't just throw a bunch of familiar crowd-pleasers out there. Yeah, they shook the walls with some hits–"Hell and Back" and "Changing"–but it was never just party-time: they slipped in thoughtful meditations like "Bride and Groom" and the weighty "All I Ever Wanted" before ending with a majestic "Midnight." And the encores–four of them–included "The Graveyard Near the House" and "All At Once," possibly Jollett's greatest two songs, each of them about how love might serve as a desperate bulwark against looming fears of death.
Though the band made sure things stayed buoyant–it helps to have singalongs like "Missy" and "Gasoline" in your back catalog–and Jollett's crescent-moon of a smile was evidence that he was certainly having as good a time as everybody else, this was a serious night, highlighted by the special redemptive intensity with which Jollett sang (from "All At Once")
When it seems someone's lied and our parents have died
And we hold onto each other in their place.
The opening act was Irvine's The Brevet, who played a species of folky heartland rock –lots of rousing choruses, and subtle and intelligent singing from Aric Chase Damm–that set up and complemented the spirit of the night. And that spirit was an Airborne Toxic Event specialty: using the basic elements of rock 'n' roll to lift you high enough to face some inevitable hard truths. It was a great night.