Amid the roiling heat and rolling, sun-drunk waves of sweat-sheen Angelinos, the Airborne Toxic Event played a dynamic set of emotionally and sonically textured rock ‘n’ roll at the Sunset Junction Street Festival on August 19. Opening with “Papillon,” a spiked-riff barrage of lyrical ennui and desperation surrounded by whiplash guitars and chiming keyboard noise, the members of the Event quickly set the tone for their show: heady, searching lyrics densely packed within furiously gleaming guitar attacks and bound to an irresistibly groove-heavy rhythm section with viola lines arcing in between. Essentially, dance music for intellectuals.
By the second song (single “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”), concertgoers were drifting toward the stage (there were three total for the weekend-long festival, playing host to such bands as Breakestra, the Broken West and Blonde Redhead) in an electron haze, forming a cloud of head-bobbing and shout-alongs — “Christ, she’s not alone!” — around the nucleus of the band, which responded to the waves and radiation with songs like the melodic thrash of “Innocence” and the shimmering cinemascape of “Wishing Well.”
Those songs succeeded in moving beer-logged synapses as well as sun-drenched legs, but show centerpiece “Sometime Around Midnight” demanded a standstill. Emerging from a wall of ambience, it was a coiled, ascending slow burn that, with each rising wave of guitar/keyboard interplay, took Airborne’s level of songwriting and performance higher and higher before hitting a neuron-fusing high of live energy and catharsis, for both the band and the UV-weakened audience. “Midnight” was not just a musical breakthrough for the group; lyrically, it found singer/lyricist Mikel Jolet broadening the subject and themes of “Moving On?” into a more expansive territory of wordplay, loss, and transcendence. If “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” is the band’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” then “Sometime Around Midnight” is its “Like a Rolling Stone.”
It’s rare enough to see a band play with the amount of exuberance and camaraderie that the Airborne Toxic Event so obviously had at Sunset Junction; it’s rarer still to find a band as dedicated to their craft as they are to their audience. The members of Airborne are all over those things. It’s a band that, in its art, makes you feel something, anything; it also makes you want to get drunk and dance. And in the middle of a bad breakup, an L.A. heat wave, a rock concert, or a generally bankrupt pop culture, isn’t that what good rock music is for, anyway?
Video of “Papillon” performed at Sunset Junction 2007: http://youtube.com/watch?v=ALTNJMK-G9k