Live Review: At the Drive-In Surprise and Destroy SXSW at the House of Vans (3/15)

on March 16, 2017, 10:45am

Photography by​ Heather Kaplan

“Holy shit, it looks like licorice,” singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala observed as he tugged at his mic chord. “Like sugar-free licorice at Whole Foods. Yeah, I’m at that asshole that asks for sugar-free licorice at Whole Feeds. ‘Oh cool, you’ve got a Stranger Things patch, let’s talk.’ That’s me.” Business as usual for At the Drive-In: They came, they saw, they conquered. Somewhere in between, their limber frontman weirded out the House of Vans at Austin’s Mohawk, where a full-capacity crowd sweltered the venue’s outdoor patio, teasing dozens of die-hard fans looming around the surrounding streets.

If they couldn’t watch, they insisted on listening.

Do you blame them? For the past five years — or rather, ever since Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez entertained the idea of reuniting their El Paso, Texas brethren — At the Drive-In have been rumored to pop up at South by Southwest. This year, they finally did. True to their fashion, the band kept it a secret until, oh, six to seven hours before they hit the stage. As such, the entire area looked like a de-militarized zone with hundreds of fans scattered at all corners. Some were given keychains to get inside, others were on VIP lists, and many waited accordingly.

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The lucky ones who did get in witnessed a frenetic 50-minute set that found the rockers basically performing all of 2000’s Relationship of Command with the exception of “Mannequin Republic”, “Rolodex Propaganda”, and “Non-Zero Possibility”. The lone non-Relationship track was the first single, “Governed by Contagions”, off their forthcoming album, in•ter a•li•a. Now, there isn’t a soul who complained about hearing visceral renditions of “Arcarsenal” or the crunchy double stack of “Pattern Against User” into “Sleepwalk Capsules”, but the lack of new material was a little weird.

For starters, the new album hits stores on May 5th, which is only a gasp away, and bands traditionally showcase whatever’s coming up hot at South by Southwest. So, it’s bizarre that they didn’t unlock a few new tracks, maybe even get the media (you know, like the one you’re reading), to write up the live debut of two or three new songs. What’s more, given that Jim Ward replacement Keely Davis lent his vocals and guitar work on the album, wouldn’t it make more sense to lean on the latest incarnation of At the Drive-In as opposed to the old one? It’s admittedly a little strange.

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Again, no one had any reason or right to complain. The guys arrived on time, they kept each song fairly economical (though, “Quarantined” drifted into Mars Volta territory with all the spectral jamming), and everyone gave it their all. Rodriguez-Lopez jittered around with his guitar, as if someone had tossed in bits of smoldering coal in his shoes, while his singing colleague went H.A.M. with his showmanship, tossing on 3-D glasses, hanging from the rafters, slamming his mic stand into the drums, and diving into the crowd for a little surfing. The tea and humidifier was a nice juxtaposition to this.

Naturally, the only real issue is the only real elephant in the room about this reunion: Ward, or the lack thereof. Say what you will, but replacing Ward isn’t like swapping out a new bassist or bringing in another drummer. The guy was a crucial voice for At the Drive-In and paramount to a number of songs — see: “Pattern Against User”, “Cosmonaut” — of which Davis was good yet not great. It’s just hard to think of this as the same band without him; it would be like calling The Beatles, well, The Beatles without George Harrison. That wouldn’t fly for the Fab Four; why does it fly for them?

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Well, maybe because they still know how to destroy a stage. That’s one argument. Or maybe it’s because it was the card they were dealt. If you recall, Ward opted out; they didn’t opt out on Ward, and while that doesn’t solve the problem of his absence, the weight can’t be put entirely on Bixler-Zavala or Rodriguez-Lopez. If tonight’s any indication of things to come, these two are playing their hearts out, and it’s not like they don’t have bassist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar to help keep this namesake. Whether or not they prefer sugar-free licorice, well, that’s up for debate.

Setlist:
Arcarsenal
Pattern Against User
Sleepwalk Capsules
Governed by Contagions
Invalid Litter Dept.
Enfilade
Cosmonaut
Quarantined
One Armed Scissor

 

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