The Mars Volta: 11 September 2009 – Congress Theater, Chicago

It was from in front of amps draped with Mexican flags and an enormous psychedelic mural, which encompassed the entire back of the stage, that the Mars Volta unleashed their sonic fury on Friday night at Chicago’s Congress Theater. The band stood six members strong on stage, but the brunt of the performance fell on the shoulders of the band’s founders and chief songwriters, guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala. This was just fine by them.

Right from the outset the show quickly succumbed to the band’s frenetic musical intensity, as they delivered on all claims of their energetic live show. Although, given the band’s recorded music, there would be very little room for a subdued performance. It was not long into the set before lead singer, Bixler-Zavala, was off the stage singing from atop a monitor that stood between the stage and the partition that held back the crowd, as excited fans outstretched arms grasped for him.

As an early handful of songs the band played indicated (e.g “Inertiatic ESP”, from 2003’s De-Loused in the Comatorium, “Goliath”, from last year’s The Bedlam in Goliath, and “Cotopaxi” from the band’s most recent, Octahedron) the setlist was a fairly balanced mix of songs spanning their career thus far. Much like the band’s albums, the performance contained a dark, sort of menacing undercurrent in which their music seems most at home. The live show, however, surpasses what the band has put down on record. Live, the music seems more organic, or even more emotionally charged. The focus is not so much on the precision of the songs, which is characteristic of their albums, but on the direct performance. It makes the songs a little rougher around the edges but it is all for the best. While Bixler-Zavala’s vocals and high register can wear a little thin after awhile on record, at the Congress it melted into the thick backing music making it less polarizing, but no less potent.

The Mars Volta as a band are a little difficult to categorize, as they seem to exist on the periphery of some unidentifiable center point. During the show the band displayed influences ranging from elements of prog-rock to flashes of ’60s and ’70s rock to some ’80s hair metal. While glimpses of these influences appeared — some more than others — the music never sounded like anything but the Mars Volta.

The strangest portion of the evening may have been its conclusion. After the band played thru “The Widow”, from 2005’s Frances the Mute, and finally “Wax Simulacra”, for which they won a Grammy last year, they stepped to the front of the stage to wave a goodbye to fans. But before the crowd could even cheer, they were off the stage, the house lights came on and people were being ushered out of the venue. I’m not complaining — they fit a lot of intensity into the one hour and 40-minute set — but it was one of the most abrupt endings to a show I have ever witnessed.