There are few feelings which are more powerful than nostalgia. As we go on our daily lives, it’s not uncommon to feel something is missing or lacking, based solely on what we have experienced before or to be precise, our mind’s projection of those experiences.
With our personal lives documented through social media and the majority of the cultural content ever created available at our fingertips, you can make nostalgia and living in the past into a personal art project, if you choose to do so. You could watch only what you watched every Saturday morning as a kid, you could immerse yourself in video games from the same time period or you could leaf endlessly though the keepsakes and pictures from an old relationship.
There are probably few things that will torment you more, assuming you live a comfortable first world existence of course. Even if you recreate the form of the past by purchasing those games or getting back with that ex, you can never re-create that essence of what it was to be a person in a particular time and particular place.
So with all that in mind, why was I so excited about the At The Drive-In reunion, a subject about which I’ve written in the past? Excited enough to enter a draw for the chance to buy early bird tickets. Excited enough to take two days off work in the middle of the week. Excited enough to book flights and accommodation.
Well, nostalgia is one thing but the chance to make up for what you feel are missed opportunities is another. I was 15 when At The Drive-In played in the Temple Bar Music Center (nostalgia eh?) during their infamous last tour around Europe and Australia in 2000. My first proper rock gig was Jimmy Eat World in October 2001, almost a full year afterwards.
I also adjusted my own expectations through knowing what I was getting myself in for. The pyrric actions of the band on their final tour, where they regularly smashed instruments and played out of tune, never more prominently than during THAT appearance on Jools Holland, were to eventually rip them apart in acrimony and recrminations.
Partly this sprung from the creative tensions which ran down the spine of the group, easily identifiable in hindsight as lying between the duo of singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriquez Lopez, whose output as The Mars Volta leaves little doubt as to where they wanted to take the group, and the rest of the group. Sparta, the group formed by the remaining trio of Jim Ward, Tony Hijjar and Paul Hinojos, also left the listener in little doubt that they favoured a more conventional rock sound.
But it was these creative tensions that had defined them at the peak of their powers. Relationship of Command retains the rare blend of unrelenting urgency and intense intellect found only within the very elite of rock music. Their legendary live shows were also fuelled by nervous energy, which turned to emotional and physically destructive actions as they spiralled towards their eventual break up.
It’s this that really had me worried; how could they reunite and recapture what made them so great when it was what had lead them to rend asunder in the first place?
But as so often with life, it’s better to engage with it’s complexities and be disappointed then sequester away from it and be left to wonder at what might have been. So last Tuesday I showed up at the Brixton Academy, emerging from the tube to be greeted with the surreal sounds of ticket touts shouting the band’s name.
The Academy is a huge huge amphitheatre, and manages to mix charm reasonably well with scale. This is At The Drive-In but this is also a Tuesday night in London so people are chatting away and drinking a few pints before the gig, with the venue only half to three-quarters full for support act MMOTHS.
There are a number of factors which mean this was always going to be a tough place for Jack Colleran to make an impression. Between the subtlety of his musical palette and the uniqueness of the occasion, there seemed to be little chance of a disaster or a triumph. He avoids both, with Cedric later complimenting the crowd for their politeness towards him. This might not always be the response an act wants to engender but there will be other days and times for him to make a mark.
And so as the tension builds towards the main event, it is punctuated by some strange things. Chief among these must be the kettle which is set up for Cedric to boil some water and drink it on stage. At several points in the set steam rises from it as it is reboiled.
It is not long before my friend Kieran spots “the outline of an Afro” by the stage door and with a blast of ride of the Valkyries, they take to the stage. After a brief interjection (“good morning Miami” from Cedric) they strike up a cacophony of noise the equal of the aforementioned piece of classical music.
It swells and rises until it is eventually tamed by the steady shaking of maracas, leading into the opening song ‘Arcarsenal’. The crowd throws itself physically, sonically and emotionally at the opening lines of “I must have read a thousand faces” at a pace which doesn’t abate for the rest of the song or for ‘Pattern Against User’.
Indeed I find the constant shoving and slamming a bit much if I’m honest having spent the last few years attending a few more docile gigs than I did in my youth. This is not a night to drink in the moment on your terms though but one to be lost in whatever comes your way. Sheer joy sonically but mostly strangers’ sweet aromatically.
Most of Relationship of Command and the band’s second album In-Casino-Out gets an airing, with some of the lighter side of the catalogue (’198d’, ‘Quaraintited’) providing respite for tired bodies. The energy of the band is nowhere near as furious as the images which flittered across MTV in the early 2000s, with the noteable exception of Cedric, whose energy levels remain high but whose movements have become smoother and less harsh. Omar Rodriquez Lopez remains stoic throughout, occasionally cracking a smile but with the look of a man who is not going to be doing this for years to come.
And during the encore we are left in little doubt as to what comes next, when Jim Ward announces that he considers “this chapter closed”. A blistering one two of ‘Catacombs’ and of course ‘One Armed Scissor’ brings things to a close. For some bizarre reason, ‘Surfing Bird’ is the first song the house plays after the band departs, a reminder that no matter how carefully you want to craft a moment, life always has other ideas.
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