LA101 Fest – LA Weekly – Gibson Amphitheater – October 23, 2011

Continuing with my theme of reviewing out of order (and late)…mostly because I had time to do the bulk of the review at the show on my phone before I got home.  Here is the review of my second Airborne Toxic Event show in five days.  (Of course it’s taken me almost a week to wrap this up to actually post.)

A quiet laid back So Cal Sunday was the start to my last of five shows in less than two weeks. Combined with work travel I was pretty worn down and decided not to worry about arriving in time for the 3:00pm gates and the earlier outdoor acts. The fact that I’d just seen one if them up at the Fillmore (The Drowning Men) and wasn’t that impressed helped the decision a bit.

I rolled up and parked around 5:30 and grabbed a quick Tommy burger at City Walk. When I entered at about 6:15 there was a band called: Electric Guest playing. They weren’t horrible, nor were they memorable. The lead singer had a weird sort of vocal style that did nothing for me.  I stayed for a couple songs, but wasn’t feeling they were going to improve much, I decided to wander a bit.

I walked the rest if the Festival Area in from of the Gibson.  It was an odd mix of charities, food trucks and oddball exhibits. McDonalds was giving free Smoothie samples in-between the National Dodgeball Association and a charity to save the Los Angeles River (such as it is I guess…)  They also had a couple ping pong tables if you were so inclined.  To me it just felt tossed together and sort of half-assed.  Much like the promotion had been for the show itself.  I scanned the LA Weekly website a few days before the show and could find any good info….no list of bands playing outside, no list of exhibitors.  It was a very weak effort on their part and that was reflected in the weird mix and vibe outside.

The doors opened at 6:30, so I went inside to await the 7:15 start, which thankfully was right on time. As a bonus, the engineer seemed hooked on the Beatles, so a nice soundtrack to wait with…certainly better than Electric Guest outside (sorry boys, keep at it and maybe things will improve.)  Inside the Gibson was less a festival and more a straight ahead rock show.  The only trace of “festival” was the crawl of sponsors on the screen between acts.

Delta Spirit was up first.

I had picked up their CD “History from Below” to try and get a sense of them going in.  They (on CD and live) were a grungy mix of country rock…a dash of Fogerty, a smidgen of Neil Young.  The first song “Bushwick Blues” showed them off to decent effect.  They had a cool sort of dual drum sound where the keyboard player would move over and play a small kit in front of the drum riser.  But, they showed off two new songs that they announced as “Torn in Two” and “Tear it Up”.  Both seemed a little trite lyrically and didn’t seem headed in a good direction if they represent their new material.  Not the worst band by far, but a long way still from being compelling enough to climb the bill…or to convince me to head back and see them again.  Their set was a tight 45 minutes and really about the right length for what they had to offer.  (A polite way to say they didn’t leave me wanting more….)

Here’s a live version of “Bushwick Blues”…again, they weren’t awful, they just need some work.

Built to Spill was up next:

Honestly, at an hour they played too long.  The mix was bad, and the lead singers faint and wistful vocals were buried under a wall of three droning guitars.  They have a great reputation, but they were a bad fit for this bill (judging from the bored looks of those around me) their set was lost on the majority of the half filled amphitheater.  They would fit right in with Pavement or Modest Mouse….

This song “Conventional Wisdom” had a cool jammy sort of feel to it.  But, by the end of the set they’d lost me to stand up and stretch my legs in the lobby.

Third on the bill was Tokyo Police Club:

They were ernest and energetic…and somewhat average.  I realized that so many of the “indie” bands basically have a very similar sound and in fact are not very “independent” at all.  The weirder ones, go too far off the map the the more mainstream ones end up sounding alike and sort of boring.  I’d bought Elephant Shell and listened to it a few times.  But, there just wasn’t much to set them apart.  In a weird way they made me think of Two Door Cinema Club who I saw at Glastonbury and liked…but, without some key ingredient (Glastonbury, I suppose?) in their case.  And for no particular reason, I also thought they were a bit like what the cast of Big Bang Theory would look and sound like if they somehow formed a band.

They had some challenges getting the audience engaged as well, even though the arena was about 2/3 full at this point.  They tried a sing along and got a fairly tepid response on “Elephant Shell”…but even worse, near the end they did a “ooooh ooh ooooh ooh oooooo” sing along that tread dangerously close to “Bob and Doug – Take Off to the Great White North” territory….I don’t think that was the sound they were looking for…even if they are from Toronto….

Here’s their second song, “Nature of the Experiment”

Which brings me to Airborne Toxic Event and the second show in less than a week.  At this point the hall was about 3/4 full, not a bad turnout and about three times the size of the crowd I’d seen them at in San Francisco.  They were stellar, as good as the Fillmore, but in a slightly different way.

The biggest change was the addition of an orchestra, yep a full orchestra for about half of the show.  (The Herb Alpert Orchestra and actually there was a small girls choir on some songs as well).  As you can imagine, the addition of so much musical firepower added some layers of depth and color to some of the songs.  Yet, I actually think the smaller Fillmore had brought out the best in the band as a straight ensemble.  Plus, the thought the Fillmore selections, which were slightly different were also slightly better.

Starting once again with “All at Once” into “Half of Something Else” and then inserting “Wishing Well” into the set before “Letter to Georgia”.  (The orchestra departing after Wishing Well).  “All for a Woman” was missing a little bit of the sharpness from San Francisco and didn’t connect for me as well as it had at the previous show.  “Happiness is Overrated” replaced “Numb” in the set and “Does this Mean You’re Moving On” and “Changing” swapped places.  Papillon was dropped.

The orchestra rejoined for “Welcome to Your Wedding Day” which soared to an epic level beyond the great Fillmore performance (I credit the huge sound with some of that “epic-ness”.  But, my notes from here out were pretty direct….”Sometime Around Midnight” was simply “stirring” and “All I Ever Wanted” was noted as “epic”.  The set closer of “Innocence” was jotted down with a quote of the song lyrics…”Oh my god”….

Brilliant stuff.

The encore started as it had in San Francisco, a solo version of “The Graveyard by the House” that built and built until it was a full roar.  The closing song “Missy” feature the same snippet of “I Fought the Law” along with introductions and solos by each section of the orchestra as well as the band.  A nice move that brought attention to the kids of the orchestra and seemed like a very cool and respectful thing for the band to have done.  They ended moments before midnight and I walked out with a buzzing and happy crowd.

It was a memorable set by a group that seems to be totally growing into larger and larger venues.  It wasn’t a perfect evening, but it with the the band at the top of bill being so compelling, it was at least a darn good one overall.

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