Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Airborne Toxic Event, Built to Spill, Tokyo Police Club concert review: Los Angeles

A version of my review originally appeared at

The Airborne Toxic Event leader Mikel Jollett surveyed the Gibson Amphitheatre audience and marveled, “we’re a long way from Spaceland.”
That small club – renamed The Satellite in 2011 – was an integral part of the Silverlake indie rock scene and the place where TATE first cut their concert teeth five years ago. Sunday night, the Los Angeles alt-rock quintet did an amazing job headlining the third annual LA 101 festival, where Massive Attack and Thievery Corporation topped the bill last year.
Taking a similar approach as their December '09 concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall (later released as the stunning “All I Ever Wanted” on DVD+CD and Blu-ray), TATE pulled out all the stops in Universal City.
The Herb Alpert School of Music Orchestra from CalArts in Valencia enriched several songs and a young female choir bookended the 90-minute set. An eagle and two shorn trees (think of the cover art to the 2007 self-titled debut disc) adorned the stage. 
“It’s good to be back home again,” exclaimed Jollett while a few dozen musicians kicked off the title track to latest album “All At Once” and attained a glorious uplift. “Half of Something Else” found TATE violinist Anna Bulbrook’s graceful violin lines taking the spotlight. 
A pair of rude teenage male fans, apparently infatuated with Bulbrook, continually yelled out her name and professed their admiration for the group. Once during a quieter segment, their outbursts threw off Jollett and he had to stop a song midway through. The singer/guitarist took the interruption in stride. 
One of the best things about watching TATE live is how the members – especially guitarist Steven Chen – routinely switch instruments and are so adept at it. Jollett pointed that out at the end of the evening, joking that he thought Chen might pull out a theramin at one point (the lineup is rounded out by drummer Daren Taylor).
Affecting ballad “A Letter to Georgia ” found CalArts alum Noah Harmon on stand-up bass; the stark, sway-worthy “All for a Woman” was simply marvelous. Longtime fans loudly voiced their approval during stomping rocker “Happiness is Overrated” and “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” 
Recent top 20 modern rock hit “Changing,” boasted a high flying atmosphere and the band members continued to interacted with each other. Bulbrook triggered accordion sounds on the ominous, Celtic-influenced war denouncement “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.” Jollett did a forceful vocal delivery on his lyrics inspired by news of Afghan nuptials turned deadly via an accidental American Predator drone attack and said, “there’s nothing wrong with questioning your leaders – that’s democracy.” 
The orchestra returned for big hit “Sometime Around Midnight,” providing an added regal sheen to the sound. For the encores, Jollett and Bulbrook started off the rarely-played, poignant folk-styled ballad “The Graveyard Near the House” before the band joined in. A vibrant and fun “Missy” saw everyone onstage and a brief detour into Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law.” The set ended appropriately enough, sometime around midnight.
Earlier in the afternoon, three up-and-comers performed outdoors on the grassy Gibson concourse area before a sparse crowd. Food trucks, booths and ping pong tables kept people occupied. Following Oceanside group Drowning Men was alt-folk singer/songwriter Jenny O. from Long Island , N.Y. So far in 2011, she has landed a plum spot among the high star wattage tribute album “Rave On Buddy Holly,” shared a stage with Ben Harper and Leon Russell and is working on her first album helmed by producer Jonathan Wilson (Benji Hughes, Dawes). Live, she was too demure to make much of an impact. 
Electric Guest had no such problem. The unsigned LA electronic-soul act, fronted by a charismatic Asa Taccone (brother of Lonely Island comedy/music troupe member Jorma), opened for Foster the People over the summer and had its yet-to-be released debut album produced by Danger Mouse. Boasting a falsetto voice that recalled Jimi Somerville of Bronski Beat and smiling ear to ear, Taccone was all over the small stage and frequently switched between three keyboards to play the enticing, groove-laden tunes. Definitely one to watch    
Inside the Gibson, Long Beach-based Delta Spirit got the main stage proceedings off to a rambunctious start with the driving pace and swelling organ of “Bushwick Blues” (from 2010’s “History From Below”). Singer Matt Vazquez occasionally let loose in a Joe Cocker-esque howl. He and the other musicians seemed more comfortable than last spring at Coachella. That ease translated into a better version of the drone-dominated, percussion heavy “White Table.” Other rocking Americana-tinged tunes, such as “Tear it Up” and the new “Other Side,” recalled My Morning Jacket (whom they tour with in December). 
Built to Spill was an odd fit amid the LA 101 lineup. Young TATE fans looked puzzled and bored. A few even yelled for the veteran alt-rock band from Boise to stop during an hour-long set rife with extended guitar solos. Due to a murky sound mix (can anyone in SoCal mix a bass guitar that doesn’t overwhelm everything?), Doug Martsch’s quiet, fragile voice could barely be heard over the noisy din of three electric guitars. 
Jagged tremolo guitarscapes on “Stab” (off 1994’s “There’s Nothing Wrong with Love”) and the mind-bending sonic maelstrom of “Wherever You Go” were impressive, but it all became a blur after awhile. Some welcome pop influences cut through on “Distopian Dream Girl” and the slow-churning “Stop the Show” gradually built in intensity, yet there was an overwhelming feeling that the performance was business as usual. 
Canadian buzz band Tokyo Police Club turned in a delightful 45-minute set that was the second only to TATE in the exuberance department. Frontman and bassist David Monks has a laid back cadence to his voice that falls between Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas. The quirky indie rock music on fine second album “Champ” is totally infectious; it translated well in concert too. 
Highlights included the punchy, reverb-laden guitar waves of “Favourite Colour,” “End of a Spark,” the jaunty organ-laden “Tesselate,” percolating synths/stabbing guitar tandem on “Frankenstein” and high flying harmonies throughout “Wait Up (Boots of Danger).” I would’ve liked to see them include selections from the new “10 Songs 10 Hours 10 Days 10 Years” collection, where they take on everyone from Jimmy Eat World and LCD Soundsystem to Kelly Clarkson and Miley Cyrus. Maybe next time. Can’t wait to see these guys live again.      

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