Last week, I caught three shows by The Airborne Toxic Event, and all three were some of the best shows I’ve ever been to, simply put.

Wednesday night at Metro was the first time I’d caught them live, though I’ve been a fan since hearing their break out single, “Sometime Around Midnight”. About 30 seconds into the first song, they dove right into “Numb”, a new track off of the second album, All I Ever Wanted. From their onslaught, it was clear that The Airborne Toxic Event was a rock ‘n roll ball of energy that wouldn’t or couldn’t stop.

The haunting voice of Mikel Jollett was offset by his ear to ear smile. Not only were these guys, and gal, playing their hearts out, but they had a blast doing it. Mikel switched from guitar to piano with ease as did guitarist Steven Chen. Anna Bulbrook, on viola, played around on stage with bassist Noah Harmon, as if they were in the middle of some inside joke that we weren’t privy to. Mikel joked between songs and taunted the crowd when they tried to sing lyrics before he did.

One of the highlights was of course, “Sometime Around Midnight”, which was played in the second half of the set, but not as a closer. Throughout the song, Mikel’s vocals were drowned out by the crowd and by the end, people around me were shedding tears. Aw, shucks!

During one song, New Mikel climbed a lighting rig and proceeded to sing from the top of a speaker tower, jokingly teasing the crowd as if he was going to jump. Airborne closed the show with a “mash up” of their single “Missy” and three other covers. In the middle of “Missy”, they seamlessly transitioned into Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, into The Clash’s cover of “I Fought the Law” into Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and then back to “Missy” yet again.

They were as happy to be on stage as we were to be watching. At the end of the encore, Mikel handed his guitar to a tech and as the band retreated to their dressing rooms, he jumped off the front of the stage into the photo pit. He then spent the better part of the next hour signing autographs, posing for pictures and shaking hands. How many times have you ever seen a lead singer do that?

By noon on Thursday, I found myself at the Chicago music institution The Abbey Pub. The Abbey is a tiny venue that hosts music on the weekend while serving food during the week. It’s a great spot to catch local music since The Abbey hosts an annual bluegrass festival and, like the show I was about to see, also hosts intimate performances, along with Chicago Radio station WXRT. This was a private invitation only show for live broadcast, but I’m sneaky and was able to get in. The Airborne Toxic Event took the stage and played a stripped-down, acoustic version of many of their best songs, broken up by a light interview by the DJ from the radio station. They played just as hard and enjoyed the crowd of 50 as much as they did the sold out crowd at the Metro the night before. The stripped versions were met with the same backing vocals, offered by the crowd, and the emotional “Sometime Around Midnight” was just as powerful midday and unplugged as it was at full force. By the end of the set, I was more impressed and was looking forward to that night’s show at the Metro even more.

Thursday night started the same, with a great set from opening act Voxhaul Broadcast. These guys are tight and technically proficient but I felt they fell prey to an air of supremacy that 99.9% of indie bands have today. You’re in a band, I get it, but you aren’t a misunderstood artist that no one in the audience could possibly identify with. Relax, have fun, enjoy the fact that you are playing in a touring band and listen to what your therapist says and get over yourself. That’s not directed solely at Voxhaul Broadcast but to all the “indie” bands out there. Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed Voxhaul Broadcast and even bought the CD.

When Airborne took the stage, the energy level was just as high as the night before but the band seemed different. They seemed more serious and more focused on the performance at hand. Mikel still joked with and taunted the crowd, but it seemed a tad more stifled. The set was just as powerful as the night before, but overall wasn’t as lighthearted. The applause around mid-set at “Sometime Around Midnight” was absolutely deafening, as if the band had left the stage and was waiting for an encore worthy roar from the crowd. This seemed to break down whatever wall Mikel had put up, he smiled sheepishly and dare I say it, might have even been blushing. To see a band still get that emotionally moved by the crowd after playing that song countless times to the same reaction really puts into play the vulnerability of The Airborne Toxic Event.

This group plays with their hearts on their collective sleeve and doesn’t hold anything back. They give everything they have and leave it all on the stage for the crowd to enjoy. They don’t hide behind tracked in instruments or racks of keyboards with thousands of effects. This is straightforward, in your face, no punches pulled rock and roll. I recommend that anyone reading this try to catch these guys live but if possible try to catch them at a smaller more intimate venue; you’ll thank me later!

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