By Jeff Miller
Awkward homecomings can be harrowing for anyone, but for the Airborne Toxic Event — whose spiral to rock stardom on the heels of their fantastic, ubiquitous, Arcade-Fire-biting single “Sometime Around Midnight” was dampened by a malignant Pitchfork review that dissed our city as much as it dissed the band — their show at the Henry Fonda Theater also carried with it a sense of importance; it's as everyone in the sweaty room knew that A.T.E. were not being judged just on the merits of their songwriting (sometimes ambitiously amateurish, sometimes just one or the other), but whether we actually wanted them as our city's indie-rock diplomats (and, likewise, whether they can do the job).
Well…yes they can. Unlike previous eastside scene forbears (from Cold War Kids' Nathan Willett to Silversun Pickups' Brian Aubert) frontman Mikel Jolett's embraced his role as an LA ambassador. A few minutes after debuting a new song, “Echo Park” (“this is about a place just down the road from here,” he said), Jolett went on a tangent about questions he gets asked on tour. “We don't know any actors,” he proclaimed, before listing the other things LA is composed of: Latinos, Koreans, Ethiopians. It'd be a huge stretch to find that multiethnic melange in their music (which leans far more Robert Smith than Femi Kuti, thank you), but Jollett's exuberance shines through anyways, whether it's in the swell of emotion he throttles through in “Sometime Before Midnight” (not just the single, but the band's best song so far) or by allowing dozens of kids onstage to dance through the encore — hearkening back to the band's not-so-distant days at Spaceland, when they didn't need to worry about being ambassadors for anyone but their own tuned-up instruments.
In the lobby after their opening set, Henry Clay People guitarist Andy Siara described his first moment looking out at the 1000-plus-person audience as “surreal;” for the first half of their set, it was obvious that they weren't quite accustomed to the pressures that come with monumental shows like this, the second date of their first-ever tour. Once warmed up, though, they found their combustible groove, inviting back their two founding members to help them through covers (Operation Ivy's, “Knowledge;” a medly of everything from “You Can't Always Get What You Want” to Built To Spill's “The Plan”) and “Working Part Time,” a sloppy, joyous mess dedicated by Siara to his family — in such a sensitive way that it's obvious his own days as a diplomat are just getting started.