A crisp New England evening, just down the street from Harvard, gave way to a steady night of rock and roll, centered in the basement of the iconic Cambridge hangout The Middle East, as authentic a rock club as one can imagine.
We began with Bad Marriage, a locally based act of no small following, with dozens in the crowd cheering on their covers and originals alike. Led by frontman JonnyP, who himself is one part Robert Plant and one part David Lee Roth, the band rocks along like the calendar still says 1979, and they’re frankly pretty good at it. Between the swaying and swaggering and ohbytheway pretty decent music, this band represents the good of the devil-may-care attitude of classic rock.
Then we moved on to The Wild! (exclamation point is theirs, not mine.) The throwback rockabilly blend issuing forth from these four rough-hewn Canadian musicians is both infectious and effective. The band comes out swinging from the jump at about a hundred miles an hour (and with the band’s name and stylization, what other choice do they have?) and the boys seem intent on working with the audience until they win it over. Their enthusiasm makes that task surprisingly simple, and within about three tunes the gathered throngs were all but enraptured, ready to sing along, clap, dance, jump or whatever else the band required of them. Companion to that, the band entices participation by participating themselves – all the stage antics, from the spins to the kicks to the jumps – are choreographed, thus showcasing all those little things that enhance the set and ensnare the crowd’s attention. Now that’s not to say that The Wild! are some kind of sham act, much the opposite – it’s an acknowledgment that these gents know what they’re doing and know how to win. Never mind that the songs themselves are energetic and churning, even the comparatively slow blues ballad “What About You?”
Finally, the showpiece. Airbourne, now roughly ten years into the game, knows how to do all those things that The Wild! did, but do them at an even more professional, streamlined level. As much as the act may seem spontaneous and the personality of Joel O’Keefe certainly is, the true moments of showmanship have been honed over many years of practice. O’Keefe’s patented bar walk, where he rides the shoulders of the nearest roadie over to the bar and then rocks out atop it, has been in the repertoire for the band since their debut tour. Nevertheless, it remains an impressive and unique trick, in this case used early in the set to enhance the experience of “Too Much, Too Young, Too Fast.”
Even with the release of the new album “Breakin’ Outta Hell,” it was a night for classics from Airbourne, as they opened with “Ready to Rock,” the boisterous single from the previous record, “Black Dog Barking.” Airbourne mixed in tunes from their entire catalogue, including a heavy-handed and welcome “No Way But The Hard Way” which included the crowd chanting in full throat and O’Keefe gleefully swinging a spotlight over the crowd to encourage more help in the chant.
For their worth, the two new tunes on the evening, the title track and “Rivalry” popped with all the vigor and virility one would expect from an Airbourne show. The new songs, especially the latter, sound right at home in the middle of the set, accompanied by the traditional Airbourne bombast and blitzkrieg.
For all that, though, the highlights of the evening, as one might expect, came from 2007’s electric debut “Runnin’ Wild,” to date still the best and most accomplished Airbourne record. Five cuts in total, led by an adrenaline-inducing reproduction of the deep album cut “Girls in Black,” which was impressive both for its snappiness and for the pure weight of its punch. All of the material from this record sounded suitably great, be it the good cheer of “Stand Up for Rock and Roll” or the measured chaos of encore closer “Runnin’ Wild.”
Two notes on the side – first, at a neat and tidy eleven songs, the set went by like a Bob Gibson playoff game, over and done in about an hour and ten minutes. That’s not a bad thing, but there was some time lost to playful antics and unnecessary wandering, time which could have been spent cramming two or three more tunes in there. Four albums in, the band certainly has enough material to choose from. It’s a minor thing to gripe about, but it merits mention. Second, O’Keefe has developed a gimmick of slamming a beer can into his head until it bursts open, which doesn’t seem like a good idea, but I’ll admit that the visual is pretty impressive.
The entire night, from beginning to end, was a night spent in the joyous cacophony of very loud rock and roll, and was a necessary reminder than the genre, in the classic sense, still has a lot of life left in it. O’Keefe’s tried-and-true closing, that “as long as we’re alive, and as long as you’re alive, then rock and roll will never die,” is fitting testament to that.