I confess that I didn’t really appreciate At the Drive-In until I saw them live. It’s a bit of a clichéd thing to say, of course — band wins over skeptical critic with an impressive live show — but it just so happens to be the truth in this case. Before they graced the stage in Chicago in support of 2000’s Relationship of Command, At the Drive-In was, as far as I was concerned, nothing more than a modestly capable emo band with some hardcore pretensions and a lead singer that sounded an awful lot like Zach de la Rocha. Their album production was too slick and the caterwauling guitars too overblown. Relationship of Command wasn’t bad, but it certainly didn’t strike me as the messianic rock n’ roll statement that many critics had proclaimed it to be.
But seeing At the Drive-In perform the material live forever altered my listening experience and, accordingly, my assessment of the album. And the band did it through sheer force of delivery. It’s damn near impossible for me to hear to the album now without it conjuring up an image of Cedric Bixler writhing on the floor or Omar Rodriguez fencing an imaginary opponent with his guitar. Three years later, the songs are alive with the pulsating energy from that night.
My hope was that this performance from the Mars Volta (the new band featuring the two aforementioned members of At the Drive-In) would do as much for my appreciation of their debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, as the 2000 ATDI gig had for Relationship of Command. Admittedly, this was a tall order. Coming into the night’s show at the venerable Chicago venue known as the Metro, I was only mildly intrigued by the prog-leaning De-Loused. The unconventional song structures struck me as a bit too self-consciously clever and Bixler’s high-pitched whine, which had been wisely masked on the EP, was a bit too heavily indebted to Geddy Lee for comfort. I wasn’t terribly optimistic that some energetic stage antics or sonic bludgeoning would be able to sway my opinion of their recorded work.
At first, my skepticism seemed entirely justified. Bixler, Rodriguez, and the rest of the band lifelessly ambled onto the stage, seemingly a bit worn from the continuous touring. The bassist and drummer took their places in the far recesses of the stage, as if they were hired hands rather than full-fledged members of the band. Meanwhile, Bixler grabbed an actual mic stand — a stage prop that wouldn’t have even existed if this had been an ATDI show. (During the ATDI days, Bixler preferred to carry the microphone as he danced, tangling himself up in the cord.) However, as soon as the music started, it became clear that although The Mars Volta may be a touch more subdued than ATDI (the mic stand stayed upright for most of the show), they sacrifice none of the rhythmic punch. Bixler no longer scissor-kicks his way across the stage while wearing a milk crate as a helmet, but, musically-speaking, The Mars Volta was every bit as forceful as At the Drive-In.
Songs like “Inertiatic ESP” and “Cicatriz ESP” were dispensed with all the subtlety of a blowtorch, leaving charred eardrums in their wake. Kids were hoisted above the audience and hurled toward the stage. Bixler and Lopez were relatively calm throughout the proceedings (Bixler now prefers impromptu splits to assaulting himself with blunt objects), but the audience was clearly in a frenzy. Even “Televators”, an atmospheric respite on disc, was rendered in a surprisingly belligerent fashion. Thankfully, the jam band rumors were much exaggerated, for while The Mars Volta wasn’t above indulging in a few extended instrumentals, they never tarried too long before coming back to the money riffs. The evening’s sole misstep was an extended bass solo, presumably inserted to allow Bixler and Rodriguez to take a water break. (You think I jest, but both watched from the side of the stage — Bixler with cup in hand.) However, I was later told by a fellow concert-goer who saw them the night before in Detroit that I should be grateful that this night’s bass solo was mercifully short — a mere five minutes instead of ten.
In the end, the show didn’t quite live up to my personal expectations insofar as I haven’t had an urge to pop in the disc since I saw them — and when I finally do take another listen, I highly doubt my opinion of De-Loused will undergo significant revision. There’s still too sizable gulf between the group’s live aesthetic and their studio approach. Yet by any other critical measure, the show was a resounding success — demonstrating that the band is capable of delivering their prog without sacrificing the aggressive rush at which Bixler and Rodriguez have always excelled. For now, The Mars Volta live experience and the album remain separate entities as opposed to complementary halves; one can only hope that some of the immediacy of the live performance carries over into the studio when they record their follow-up.