Live Review

The Airborne Toxic Event, Sixth & I Synagogue, Washington DC

There are smiles all around on stage as TATE realise they are sharing something very special.

Doing a reverse Bob Dylan - a rock ‘n’ roll band going acoustic - could be a terrible move for most bands. For a song to be adapted for an acoustic setting, there has to be a melody that lends itself to simplicity, yet be compelling enough to soar instrumentally, and there aren’t too many bands these days that can pen such songs. But then again, working class Los Angeles troubadours the Airborne Toxic Event isn’t any band. Consistently selling out venues and wowing crowds in the UK, their history in Britain is already written, in a way.

TATE could have rested on their laurels and gone on to lazily record album #2. Instead, they decided on adjusting previous tunes that have quickly become fan favourites and writing new songs to fit a more instrumentally challenging set, including the classical Calder Quartet in their plans. Both violist/keyboardist Anna Bulbrook and bassist Noah Harmon are classically trained musicians, and they no doubt bridged this potentially perilous transition. Tuesday was the debut night of the tour in Washington, being played out at DC’s historic Sixth and I Synagogue.

The elegantly attired Calder Quartet begin the night in style, playing an introductory track called ‘Assez Vif: Trés Rythmé’ alone until halfway through, as the members of TATE appear one by one to thunderous applause. The band then launches into ‘Wishing Well’, one of the best songs in TATE’s arsenal. It starts softly but then gives you a swift kick in the rear, with Bulbrook’s viola, Harmon’s bass, and the Calder Quartet’s playing combining to create an enchanting swelling of sound usually heard - no surprise - in orchestral performances. In the deft hands of these players, it’s gorgeous. A heartbreaking rendition of the Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love’ is dedicated to frontman Mikel Jollett’s late grandmother, and it’s a wonder the floor isn’t flooded with tears. But not for long. There are smiles all around on stage as TATE and their friends in the Calder Quartet realise they are sharing something very special with the audience in attendance.

Newer songs like the emotional ‘A Letter to Georgia’ (‘everybody that I know said I should’ve just let you go’) stand up to the more jaunty ‘Happiness is Overrated’ and other old favourites. Fast songs or slow ones, Jollett is a master songwriter and live, he’s able to emote and relate to just about anyone who’s loved and lost. It’s obvious that TATE have put incredible love as well as time and effort to make sure these songs sound great live.

Their fans certainly appreciate their determination: one overzealous female fan yells ‘again!’ after a majestic version of ‘Sometime After Midnight’. Jollett laughs and is temporarily perturbed, saying that he was trying to get into the mindset for a sad song but can’t because the punter’s comment and ensuing cheers of agreement have made him too happy. The fan is rewarded with the rousing ‘Gasoline’, which was not on the original set list. The encore, the title track of their new album ‘All I Ever Wanted’, leads to a well-deserved standing ovation and caps off a spectacular show.

The three dates of their short UK tour in October are already sold out, but for those interested, the resulting documentary from their Walt Disney Concert Hall performance last December, ‘All I Ever Wanted’, will have its UK film premiere at London’s Rainmaker Film Festival on the 30th of September; the DVD will be released in the UK on the 4th of October.

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