LIVE: The Airborne Toxic Event @ Northern Lights, 8/3/11

When a band pulls its name from the pages of a book by award-winning novelist Don Delillo, well, you’ve probably already surmised that they’re what you might call “a thinking man’s rock band.”

And in the case of the Airborne Toxic Event, you’d be right. Lead vocalist Mikel Jollett is, in fact, a published short story writer who was in the midst of writing his own novel when the band formed.

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But what might surprise you is that the band not only rocks smart, but they also rock hard. That’s right, bookworms with power chords.

Playing at Northern Lights last Wednesday night, they fired things up immediately with “All I Ever Wanted” and “Numb,” a double-barrelled blast from their new album, “All at Once.” Drummer Daren Taylor and bassist Noah Harmon locked into a churning, relentless rhythm, while Steven Chen worked nimble, new-wavish guitar figures over the beat. Jollett reeled through the yearning lyrics with more power and raw energy than you hear on their recordings. And then Anna Bulbrook stepped up, viola tucked under her chin, and proceded to saw her way through the soaring melody, transforming the song into an undeniable anthem.

“The Kids Are Ready to Die” was ripe with punk politics, and the following “Welcome to Your Wedding Day” was charged with plenty of Clash-like spit and venom. There were stompers (the audience clap-along “Happiness Is Overrated”), U2-ish, arena-worthy tunes (“Half of Something Else”), Celtic-flavored pub-punk (“Gasoline”) and songs with big, infectious pop hooks (“Changing”). By the time they pulled out “Something New” some 40 minutes into the concert, Jollett was already off the stage and wading through the crowd while he sang.

But it wasn’t all fury and volume. Their ballad “All For a Woman” hit the mark as well, and a cover of the Magnetic Fields’ love ballad “The Book of Love” was heartfelt and simply lovely, especially when juxtaposed against the band’s brasher offerings.

The centerpiece of their generous, half-hour encore was a lengthy rendition of “Missy,” which took several hairpin detours through Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

California indie rockers the Drowning Men opened the show with a bristling performance that seemed considerably better and brighter than the last time they were in town, opening for Flogging Molly back in February. Led by frontman Nato Bardeen’s endearing bellow and constant instrument-changing – guitar, keyboards, melodica, mandolin – the band plowed through a rousing set that sounded something like the Killers and Talking Heads facing off in a Guinness-soaked jam in some out-of-the-way Dublin pub. Highlights included “Michelle Is Getting Old” and the pub sing-along “Rita.”

All I Ever Wanted
Wishing Well
The Book of Love (The Magnetic Fields)
The Girls in Their Summer Dresses
All for a Woman
Half of Something Else
Happiness Is Overrated
Something New
The Kids Are Ready to Die
Welcome to Your Wedding Day
Sometime Around Midnight
Does This Mean You’re Moving On?
Missy>I’m On Fire (Bruce Springsteen)>I Fought the Law (Bobby Fuller Four)>Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)>Missy
All at Once

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