By: Aric Mayer
The Mars Volta :: 09.17.08 :: Hammerstein Ballroom :: New York, NY
The Mars Volta have been on a monumental world tour throughout 2008. I saw two shows on the first leg in January, and now that they are back in the Northeast Corridor, I decided to take a mini-tour. I was never a full-on tour head, but it wasn't out of the question to pack a knapsack and hit three or four shows with the Grateful Dead and Phish when I lived in California. I started seeing The Mars Volta just over three years ago and never has the notion of dropping it all for one more show been more appealing than now. With bags packed and anticipation high, I went forth to cover the tail end of their Bedlam in Goliath tour.
The Mars Volta :: 09.20.08 :: Electric Factory :: Philadelphia, PA
The Mars Volta :: 09.21.08 :: Rams Head Live :: Baltimore, MD
While a basic repetition of the setlist looks a bit tiresome on paper, the song titles only partially capture what I witnessed. While still playing close to two hours, many tunes were shaved for this leg of the tour, but to say that this band likes to explore or stretch out does a disservice to what The Mars Volta is about because it fails to convey how out there they can take things. As with all bands in the jam genre, there are structured, written segments, and then there are the springboards that send those tunes into vague representations of themselves. While I have seen TMV overindulge in aimless jams in the past, I was never disinterested in the music on this run - there were no perceptible lags, no struggling to find their way and it was consistently enthralling to watch this band perform the re-create these songs.
So, while every night began with the appropriately named "Goliath," the breaks, the solos and the adventuring through the parts of that song led us into different energies on all three nights. In New York it was a monstrous rocker, but by the time they reached Baltimore there was a complete jazz stop - with a saxophone and drums duet that would have seemed out of place in the same tune a few nights earlier.
The Hammerstein show started strong and proved to be the most full throttle of the three, in terms of energy and intensity. An old opera house, it was the largest venue, holding 3,500 people and offering the most elaborate light show and largest stage. The set also clocked in as the longest show of this trio. In a rap between "Aberinkula" and the closer, lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala told some fighting drunks to cut the crap, and then got the audience involved with a call and response of "a knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork! That's the way we spell New York! Right on, right ON!" (from Dillinger's "Cocaine in My Brain"). I'm certain that Pan was looking down from the ceiling, dancing amongst other angels and seraphs in the hand painted fresco and cheering us on as the band tore into the only performance on this run of "Drunkship of Lanterns" to close the set.
|Omar Rodriguez-Lopez by Anna Perry|
The audience at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia was mesmerized from the opening tune. The venue felt a bit cavernous, much like The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, but the sound was solid and all eyes remained front and center. After years of preaching against crowd surfacing and mosh pits, Cedric did not need to utter a word in Philly - although a noticeably younger crowd, everyone was well behaved and enthralled with the performance (in contrast to the near-melee of stupid drunks fighting in New York). Having seen these tunes played once through, I was able to focus more on the subtleties of the performance (and less on the possibility of being clocked by a hoodlum).
My observations: While Cedric has the role of frontman, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez certainly has the reins. The composer and arranger of the studio music and the conductor onstage, he gives little cues to the other seven musicians regarding tempo, solos and dynamics. And when it comes time for him to do his thing on the guitar, the man shreds. He plays over, under and through the songs - his solos on "Viscera Eyes" and "Cygnus" were unfathomably bad-assed. I was listening to a 1969 live version of "Hot Tamales" recently and there certainly is a Santana influence in what The Mars Volta offer up during a jam, but it's a scary, deep, post-modern turn on the Latin tinged music of those rock legends. Whatever their influences, the band continues to evolve, regardless of whether they choose to play new tunes or dip back into the songbook.
Speaking of which, the revival of "Eunuch Provocateur" made a lot of diehards happy, and I can't say enough about the command that Cedric has over his vocal range - especially if you go back and listen to At The Drive-In recordings. Wow. Meanwhile, the rhythmic changes during the jams can make the songs totally unpredictable. Thomas Pridgen really appears to be superhuman. I won't get into the debate about the change in drummers except to say that this incarnation of TMV seems to laugh and smile a whole lot more as a unit than when I got introduced to them in 2005. They challenge each other with every move, impossibly taking already complex tunes into maddeningly chaotic territory. My old buddy calls them "savants," which is a pretty good encapsulation.
So, my mini-tour wound down at the Rams Head Live, a 1,600 capacity intimate venue in Baltimore, where the sound was stellar. The featured ballad and minor radio song, "The Widow," sent true chills in this setting, featuring the fabulous fretwork by Juan Alderete on bass. Then, they transitioned into "Aberinkula" again and I knew it was ending.
During my time this past week, I had moments of being completely transformed - it's as close as I can get to seeing Led Zeppelin rip a blues jam or Pink Floyd space out in their respective heydays - which is to say, go see TMV now while they are living and pushing and performing in support of a monstrous record.
With minor changes in order, the setlists included:
Goliath, Viscera Eyes, Wax Simulacra, Eunuch Provocateur, Ouroboros, Ilyena, Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus, The Widow, Aberinkula (and Drunkship of Lanterns in NYC only)
The Mars Volta's next gig is Wednesday, October 1 in Arizona. They headline L.A.'s Detour Fest on Saturday. Mars Volta tour dates available here.
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