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The Mars Volta (Thursday, May 19th, 2005, Roy Wilkins Auditorium, St. Paul)
The Mars Volta - Publicity photo

By Steve McPherson

Beyond the realm of the general populace, past the place where over-40’s listen to pablum like Celine Dion and Michel Buble and the teens listen to tripe like Linkin Park and Sum 41, there lies the land of the music snob. But far from a harmonious place, there are two warring factions that divide this territory up in a bitter civil war. On one side are fans of bands like the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, and maybe even Yes. To them, the true meter of music is technical proficiency and personal expression. Mostly, you can’t hold a decent conversation on their side of town because of the drum solos. The other faction consists of the hipsters, who distance themselves from their music with irony and a self-referentiality that’s sometimes feigned, thrown up to protect their cool, but nevertheless, they sneer at “noodly” music and wear out their copies of albums by the Velvet Underground, Television, Leonard Cohen, and other bands “you probably wouldn’t have heard of.” Their side of town needs a hug and a good cry, probably.

Lately, though, a kind of peace has settled over the Mars Volta, which is quite a feat, because the accepted logic is that you can be technically proficient and lame (Phish) or minimal, boneheaded, and cool (the Ramones), but that it’s nearly impossible to be technically proficient AND cool. Somehow, the Volta have done it, and they’ve even managed to make a dent in the Warped tour crowd.

Which has shown up in force tonight, apparently shelling out $30+ a piece after Ticketmaster fees to chat loudly with their friends and show off their cool fire-breathing tricks. I’m not even kidding; this happened a couple rows away from me several times. I had arrived to Roy Wilkins a little late, towards the end of what I think was the Mars Volta’s first song, just in time to hear singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s admonishment to the crowd, “This ain’t the Warped Tour; Be nice.” To which someone near me shouted, “I went to that shit! It was weak as hell!” And how much did that ticket cost you, buddy?

Let me back up, though. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a venue the size of RWA (as the kids call Roy Wilkins Auditorium) and I don’t miss it. It’s all so impersonal. I got past all that, though, and set my mind to settling in and getting involved in the show.

As I said, the band was in media res when I came in, sort of floating through an ambient bit not unlike those that split up the proper tracks on any of their releases. They’re not so much a soft verse/loud chorus band as they are a psychological horror/slasher flick band, and they do a good job of breaking up the intense bits with some more experimental passages. If they didn’t, it’d all be too much to take. Somehow, they manage to combine bits of punk, stadium rock, dub, ambient music, Latin rock, African highlife, and prog into one giant and largely compelling whole. Their secret? As my friend Wes observed, “There’s just no bullshit.”

Guitarist and ringleader Omar Rodriguez formed the band with singer Bixler after the demise of the also truly amazing At the Drive-in. They provide the spark and meat of the band as a concept, but live, you gain a much fuller appreciation for drummer Jon Theodore’s contribution. His steady hand guides the band through seas of odd time signatures and off-kilter transitions, while bassist Juan Alderete de la Pena holds the harmonies down with the assistance of keyboardist Ikey Owens, who mostly sticks to Hammond organ. A full-time percussionist and reed player (tenor sax, flute, and bass clarinet (a rarely seen instrument in any setting, much less a rock band)) fill out the sound and leave Rodriguez free to dominate proceedings like a kind of benevolent dictator, I’ve heard that the sessions for their most recent disc—Frances the Mute—were done piecemeal, with each musician contributing only to a click track, a feat which seems amazing given the tight and organic feel of the band as a live presence.

The first song I got to hear beginning to end was ‘Eria Tarka’ from their first full-length De-Loused in the Comatorium. This and pretty much every other song of the night was stretched beyond its recorded borders, although the central bits remained intact and mostly unchanged. That is, they were punishing, cathartic, convoluted, and often catchy. Parsing Bixler’s lyrics sometimes feels a bit like cleaning up after someone who’s been dropping used Word-a-Day calendar sheets on the floor all year, but there’s no doubting he means it. Live, he prowls the stage with frontman bravado, but he’s smart enough to never upstage the band or the music with histrionics. Likewise, Rodriguez calmly runs the show from behind a massive pedal board and just starboard of a table full of analog delays and other relic pedals.

As they worked their way through a set that included happy treat ‘Concertina’ from their first EP, erstwhile radio single ‘The Widow,’ and punishing 30+ minute closer ‘Cassandra Gemini,’ I was struck again and again by how disciplined and basically musical they are. They may have drifted a bit too much here and there, but I’ve been to my share of free jazz concerts and there is a difference between good and bad free jazz. The Volta was mostly good, plus, free jazzers almost never reward you with a moshable release at the end. The crowd as a whole seemed a little confused at times, impatient for a musically sanctioned opportunity to bash into the people around them. I think somewhere around 1995 there came a moment when slam dancing or moshing or whatever you call it stopped being about expression and starting being about concussion. It just doesn’t look like fun, or maybe I’m getting old. It makes me wonder how the Mars Volta feel about it; they obviously take what they do seriously, and the success of their music is largely a product of no one who’s involved doing any kind of slacking or acting in a less than totally involved way. So what do they make of people who come to their show to smash into other people?

These are the kinds of things you have time to think about when you’re in a balcony seat a hundred yards from the band. By the time they wound around to the highlight of the evening—‘Haunt of Roulette Dares’—I had mostly stopped trying to figure it all out. ‘Haunt’ contains some of their best melodic writing, and despite being ten or so minutes long, feels lean and taut. While the individual parts of the song might be complicated, the way in which they’re arranged and developed is never needlessly convoluted, and the payoff when Bixler hits that last “Caveat emptor to all who enter here,” before the final chorus is worth a hundred Franz Ferdinands. Okay, I admit it sounds a little ridiculous in print, but this is a band that demands careful attention and (most importantly) rewards it.

After ‘Cassandra Gemini’ reached it’s abrupt and denouement-free climax, they left without encore. What else was there to do? This is a band that has broken down all kinds of barriers between the hipsters and the proggers and has somehow managed to crossover into some kind of mainstream acceptance with an album that clocks in at 75 minutes split over five songs and a live show that resembles nothing so much as a reenactment of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies days. Who knows if most of the kids who trotted down the hall with me are taking any of what the Mars Volta are doing to heart? Even if it’s only a few of them, maybe they’ll band together one day, years down the road, and bridge that gap between Techtown and Ironyville when the peace treaty has broken down again.

Abbreviated setlist:
Eria Tarka
Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt
Cygnus … Vismund Cygnus
L’Via Viaquez
Haunt of Roulette Dares
The Widow
Cassandra Gemini