The opening minutes of At The Drive-In‘s first show in a decade delivered everything you’d expect: a crowded room of sweaty bodies jumping and swaying and fist-pumping in unison. Tallboy cans launching through the muggy air and beer showering an exuberant crowd that screamed along to every word of the blistering, lose-your-shit madness of “Arcarsenal.” It used to be that the El Paso post-hardcore quintet frowned upon these sorts of rowdy antics. But you could tell the guys were euphoric to be playing again, and didn’t mind the passionate response.
Monday night’s show at Red 7, the band’s first since calling it quits 11 years ago, was a prime example of why you should laugh when someone tells you they’d rather listen to an album than see a band live in concert. Because as beautiful as recorded music can be, iTunes can’t replicate the euphoria of sharing your energy with hundreds of hive-minded bodies.
Throughout the 15-song set, which pulled material from In/Casino/Out, Vaya and Relationship of Command, we saw flashes of the anarchic ATD-I of old. Just flashes. There was frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala doing hand stands off the bass drum and swinging from the rafters of Red 7’s low-hanging ceiling during “Chanbara.” And guitarist Jim Ward’s unforgettable decade-long-pent-up scream for nine uninterrupted seconds during “Enfilade.”
But overall, this was a gentler, more subdued ATD-I. “Subdued” is relative, of course, when talking about one of the most ballistic and maniacal bands in rock ‘n’ roll history. But still. Bixler-Zavala mostly chose to forgo the ADHD antics, instead opting for occasional shimmying while focusing on singing. Yes, singing. Not screaming. That was the big difference on Cedric’s side of things. A decade of Mars Volta wailing showed its influence in his delivery with ATD-I 2012. And honestly, it worked for me. I have no complaints about the frontman’s performance, but I can see why a decade of musical blue balls might lead some fans to be disappointed with the lack of screaming and wild-man theatrics. Even Bixler-Zavala himself felt the pressure, tweeting after the show, “Sorry if I wasn’t as active tonight. First one in 11 years. But thank u for the love Austin.”
If screaming is what you wanted, Jim Ward had your back. The guitarist was shouting all night like it was 2000 again. And how cathartic it was to hear his refrains of “pacifier pacifies—yeah, it pacifies!” during “Sleepwalk Capsules.” Ward was a shining spot during the entire set; he seemed happy to be there, though unhappy with the crowd surfing. Some things never change.
Paul Hinojos brought his thick, groovy bass lines and trademark swaying-to-the-rhythm, which was showcased well on “Quarantined.” Meanwhile, Tony Hajjar—always the underrated backbone of the band—brought the propulsive percussion and pummeling beats he’s known for, pretty much making “Arcarsenal” the perfect set-opener that it is.
But there was one elephant in the room the entire night. A bespectacled, afro-sporting elephant. In the midst of 500 bodies swaying and sweating and shouting together, there was one noticeably still body—that of guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. The mad genius who used to glide along the stage with salsero poise and thrash about with punk-rock spirit was barely present. He played his guitar parts true to the songs, so you can’t knock his performance musically. But emotionally, he was elsewhere. The likely explanation is that he is still grieving the recent death of his mother. A week before her passing, while he was promoting a movie he directed, Rodriguez-Lopez praised his mother as his biggest influence in life. The funeral mass for Frances Rodriguez was two weeks ago. Of course, those of us against the stage and in front of Rodriguez-Lopez, unaware of the circumstances, were quick to knock his uncharacteristic performance as proof that the reunion was all about money and not passion. It’s easy to go cynical; the truth is often a little deeper than surface appearances. Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle.
As a unit, At The Drive-In sounded as tight as ever, but the aggression and attitude need time to be restored. Ultimately, the thing to remember is they called this a warm-up show for a reason. In a way, it felt like watching a rehearsal. A full-on, balls out dress-rehearsal, no doubt—but still something that will only get better. This was the first time this band played in front of a crowd since 2001. This is a band letting us in on their rebirth, in an intimate setting. And the vast majority of us in attendance, we were too busy going gorillas to nitpick. We knew we were experiencing rock history.
Oh, also: Zechs Marquise kicked major ass as the opening band. But you wouldn’t have known it from the 90 percent of the crowd that stood still and watched with befuddled expressions as the fiery hip-hop-infused prog beasts did their thing. Nor would you know it from the audience members who mistook Omar’s brothers—Marfred, Marcel and Rikardo—for dudes in ironic At The Drive-In costumes.
Setlist: At The Drive-In at Red 7 in Austin, Texas, on April 9, 2012
- “Pattern Against User”
- “Sleepwalk Capsules”
- “Napoleon Solo”
- “Metronome Arthritis”
- “Non-Zero Possibility”
- “One-Armed Scissor”