As a late-arriving passenger on the their bandwagon, I was disappointed to learn that At the Drive In had broken up before I had the chance to catch them live. They had a great sound and raw energy that was matched by few.
11 Jul 2002: Tweeter Center Tinley Park, Illinois
Luckily, little time passed before At the Drive In spawned two new bands, The Mars Volta and Sparta. When the opportunity to see Sparta arose, I was ready and willing to be swept off my feet, hoping for some of the magic that surrounded At the Drive In.
Sparta, who was opening for Weezer and Dashboard Confessional, took the stage while the crowd was still filing into the Tweeter Center. The band quickly settled into the aggressive guitar lines and odd beats that made At the Drive In unique. The four-piece Sparta, who brought a fifth member for their live show, also added swirling keyboard patterns like those of The Who. The stage was now set, and I was awaiting that big musical payoff.
The set continued with “Mye” from Sparta’s Austere EP. “Mye” is a solid song on the recording, but the live version struggled at such a large venue. Lead singer Jim Ward was powerful and confident, but his voice was hardly distinct from the dozens of emo bands all over the radio and concert stage. Ward screamed and yearned, but had little range and no contrasting quiet dynamic. Soon most of the crowd was indifferent and immune to Ward’s voice.
As each song was played, it became clear that the band was polished and comfortable together. But it was also clear that they didn’t have any potential hits to offer. Sparta was surely not trying to be a pop band, but without some semblance of a catchy melody, they failed to even attract new fans. Instead, Sparta was content to play songs based on one guitar riff repeated for three to four minutes.
As the seven-song set wound down, however, a glimmer of hope was audible. Two new songs, “Cut Your Ribbon” and “Air” were undeniably creative and different than the rest of the set. “Cut Your Ribbon”, a preview of Sparta’s upcoming CD, Wiretap Scars, was a great song. It’s odd time signature and surprisingly sharp vocals gave the song an identity. The final song in the set, “Air”, had an eerie bass and keyboard opening that led into a strong vocal melody and unconventional beat. Both songs showed that Sparta has the potential to write great songs. More importantly, it shows that Sparta may be quickly improving.
The key to Sparta’s future lies in the hands of Wiretap Scars. If the album contains more songs like “Cut Your Ribbon” and “Air”, fans will be back and Sparta will naturally reciprocate their excitement at concerts. If the album contains repetitious instrumentals and weak vocals, though, it’s only a matter of time before fans view Sparta as a sad remnant of a once great band.