It's rare that you attend a show that feels like it has the weight of history riding on it, but seeing At The Drive-In play what is likely to be the final show of their reunion tour, 12 years after they originally split, certainly felt in that category.
The queue outside London's semi-legendary Brixton Academy on August 28th was the largest I've ever seen it at the venue, snaking all the way around to the murky street behind the club. Security was tight, with men and women being separated off for checking and random searches. Stumbling inside, the venue was already packed to the back walls with half an hour still to go before stage time.
A lot was riding on this show: while the band had already played the Reading and Leeds festivals the previous weekend, this was their first club show on UK soil in over a decade and the crowd were baying with excitement. Internet rumours had already warned me of the possibility that guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez might appear less-than-interested onstage, with cynics branding the tour "at the cash in". There was an air of anticipation and restlessness, then, when the boombox banner finally came floating down over the stage and The Flight of the Valkyries started over the PA.
Striding onstage to a hero's welcome came the five piece, Tony Hajjar warming up with some deafening rolls across his drumkit. Brixton Academy, for all its history, isn't famed for its sound quality, and even in these opening notes the sound felt overly laden with presence and reverb. Still: this was At The fucking Drive-In.
Kicking off with - what else - "Arcarsenal", perhaps the definitive album opener, the crowd instantly became a maelstrom of whirling bodies. Almost immediately somebody climbed up and began crowdsurfing down the front: don't they know anything about this band? I wondered. If enigmatic frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala noticed, he didn't say anything.
This opener was followed up in quick 1-2 punch fashion by a furious "Pattern Against User". I was struck by the absurdity of Bixler's lyrics for perhaps the first time in my decade plus of listening to the band - while it's no revelation that his wordsmithery has always veered on the wrong side of absurd, it takes things to an entirely new level to hear a drunken moshpit veteran bellow lines like "the opposition / can't feel the tentacle reach / suction cup the numb arms of the elderly" directly into your ear canal.
As this second song finished and everybody paused to wipe their sweating brows and figure out where their left shoe ended up, I stopped to wonder whether I was actually enjoying myself. In the early 2000s I was an avid collector of At The Drive-In bootlegs, having missed my chance to see them live first time around. I was intimately familiar with the standards of their live shows and could bore you to sleep with my opinions on, say, their performance of "Sleepwalk Capsules" in Bochum, Germany during 2001. This show wasn't like those shows.
Omar, as I'd feared, had spent the duration of the first few songs barely even facing the audience or acknowledging the crowd (a crowd which had, not to put too fine a point on it, paid over £30 ($47) for these tickets - breaking my own personal rule of never spending more than £20 ($31) on tickets for a show, for moral reasons). While it was a welcome change to hear him actually nailing the songs on his guitar, as opposed to some of his more chaotic live performances during the band's heydey, he could not have looked any less interested in what was going on. To Cedric's credit, he did what he could to throw himself around the stage and perform mic-stand acrobatics. Carrying the entire weight of the stage performance on his own must have been a real effort, particularly with the energy vacuum of Omar sucking all of the spontaneity out of proceedings in the corner of the stage.
A pleasant surprise came next, however: "Lopsided" from 1998's In/Casino/Out was beautifully rendered and hushed the somewhat aggressive crowd, whose need to thrash around markedly dropped off when pre-Relationship of Command songs were played.
(Photo by taylesrose)
Cedric mixed in some stage banter during the show, making British pop culture references to TV soaps and Doctor Who. He even had a brief onstage rant: against, er, people focusing on Facebook trivia. While I agree with the sentiment, it was a far cry from the man who used to rail against stagediving and "meathead" moshing. You grow old and you calm down...
Sound was muddy at times, with the intricacies of many of the RoC-era songs suffering from, perhaps, the sheer size of the Academy's main room. Some songs gained extended jam outros or middle sections, clearly a hallmark of the later bands spawned by the split. These were amongst some of the more interesting parts of the show as the band seemed to reimagine these songs for the first time in a decade, rather than simply go through the motions of one last hurrah.
While the setlist (below) was RoC-heavy, we also got the stark, raw beauty of "Napoleon Solo", rendered more poignant with Bixler's new vocal style, presumably informed by years of singing (not shouting) in The Mars Volta. This did have the effect of rendering some of the later-period songs a little less strongly, with the much-vaunted "Cosmonaut" (clip below) losing a little of its urgency as a result.
After a quick break they returned to the stage for another double punch: "Catacombs", followed by, of course, "One Armed Scissor". Guitarist Jim Ward introduced the final song with a brief eulogy to the band's career, explaining that they considered this show "the final show of the Relationship of Command tour", leading some to speculate after the show that this signified the end of the band's reunion. He finished by proclaiming his love for the rest of the band as "more than life itself", and with a lump in his throat, thanked us for coming out. Omar barely acknowledged the warmth of this heartfelt outpouring, although Cedric managed to beam with, perhaps, pride as his longtime compatriot closed the show.
Twitter reaction after the show ended was mixed: some fans claimed it was the greatest show they'd ever seen, while others proclaimed their sadness that it wasn't the band they'd once loved.
Myself, I'm unsure. I think the notion that a "classic" band should be expected to reform a decade after their apex and continue on as normal is problematic. If Omar and Cedric had flung themselves around onstage like it was the Jools Holland Show all over again, critics would've described them as poor imitations. Nobody wanted to see a poor man's pastiche of a fabled At The Drive-In show, but equally, people expected to see a band enjoying themselves and celebrating a discography of genre-defining music. What I felt I got was a band finally, fatally, persuaded into stepping onto the comeback trail. For all Omar's apparent disinterest, he was presumably interested enough to be paid to play the shows.
(Photo by Rahul Kukreja)
The price of a ticket doesn't pay for the artist to become a performing monkey, but it does buy an experience, a shared occurence, a moment linked between artist and audience. Nursing my pit bruises as I walked home from the show, I wondered whether I'd had that experience. I'd heard some of my favourite songs performed with the best musical standards possible after 12 years on the shelf, sure. What I didn't get was a sense that I'd done the right thing by shelling out to see one of the bands I never thought I'd get to cross off my list.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but maybe those heroes should take some responsibility, too.
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