October 1, 2006

Energetic Mars Volta set sends Aragon into orbit

In a perfect confluence of artist and venue, The Mars Volta took the stage at the Aragon last Friday night under a ceiling dappled with planets and constellations. Despite keeping the audience waiting nearly 45 minutes after their 7:30 p.m. start time (with no opening act to fill the gap), they made good on the $35 ticket price by delivering a blistering set of their ambient post-rock psychedelia for nearly two hours.

Don’t ask me to attempt a rudimentary set list or cite any lyrics, because I can’t—not that there were many lyrics to be heard in the largely instrumental set. For the most part, I couldn’t tell when one song ended and another began. And as a Volta virgin, I couldn’t listen for my favorite song or guitar solo.

What I could do, however, was groove on their energy, which was palpable. The band—which includes Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and the charismatic Cedric Bixler-Zavala, formerly of At the Drive-In—took the stage like they meant it, playfully dancing to their instruments amid the roar of the crowd. What a welcome change from the last concert I saw at the Aragon: Beck’s previous tour, where he employed a bespectacled nerd to do the dancing for him.

Lead singer Bixler-Zavala grunted and gyrated with the best of them, thankfully avoiding the cliches of Lead Singer 101. He engaged in no banter with the audience, not even a perfunctory “How are you doing tonight, Chicago?” Confident without appearing cocky, he never spat into the crowd or stuffed the mic into his mouth. No one can fellate a microphone quite like Karen O from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so no one else should even try.

Slightly showier was keyboardist Ikey Owens, whose work with Sublime off-shoot The Long Beach Dub Allstars is vaguely reminiscent of The Mars Volta’s slower, funkier jams. To the delight of the audience, he pounded away at his keyboard like a slap-happy Stevie Wonder. Then again—given the frenetic light show and garish backdrop accompanying the band—Liberace might be a more apt comparison.

As anyone who’s seen the post-Fergie Black Eyed Peas can tell you, special effects work wonders to prop up wobbly musical numbers. Who needs a good song when you’ve got pyrotechnics? But if there was no standout number in The Mars Volta’s sizeable set (and certainly no catchy ditty to hum on the El ride home), there was no real misstep, either. It helps that The Mars Volta play the kind of music that sounds better the louder it gets. I’m guessing that Sparta—a more emo-oriented off-shoot of At the Drive-In—would be dwarfed by the Aragon’s killer sound system.

There was certainly no emo-worthy navel-gazing by Rodriguez-Lopez and the band. With fans this devoted, they can afford to be full of themselves. Fans’ lovingly crafted homemade tees were almost as unavoidable as the fragrant whiff of marijuana. More Volta, ReVolta…the puns may not have been especially clever, but it was difficult not to get sucked into the enthusiasm. This is why the half-hearted mosh pit at the end of the show was so disappointing. Sure, everyone was drunk off of the Aragon’s reasonably priced six-dollar drinks, but it was the end of the show, people!

Ah, the end of the show. After the longest series of false endings since the season finale of Lost—with guitar riff upon guitar riff blurring into an exhilarating wall of noise—The Mars Volta exited the stage. Unsurprisingly, they did not return for an encore. While they may arrive late to the party and cut out abruptly, when they’re onstage, The Mars Volta put on a hell of a show.