It took three songs for At The Drive-In singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala to get airborne at his seminal post-hardcore band’s first show in 11 years.
As his bandmates locked into the churning opening of "Chanbara," Bixler-Zavala shed his leather jacket, jumped up and dangled from the rafters of the outdoor stage at Austin, Texas club Red 7, causing many in the crowd of 500 to wonder if more of the singer’s trademark acrobatics were on the way. Turns out they weren’t, as the quintet staged an intense if almost entirely grounded performance of songs such as "Arcarsenal" and "One Armed Scissor" that put them on the cusp of mainstream success before the group imploded in 2001.
Monday’s show was the first of a handful of warm-up dates around the El Paso band’s home state, with its major public return coming later this month at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and more festival dates expected throughout the year. Musically the group was locked in from the maracas-and-drums opening of "Arcarsenal," with guitarist/backup vocalist Jim Ward maintaining a more front-and-center presence than in the group’s early years and bassist Paul Hinojos moving the songs forward with a powerful rumble throughout.
Acclaimed for the jarring, angular two-guitar attack of Ward and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the group instead spent roughly half of its 65 minute set running through its progressive rock-leaning songs like "Lopsided," "198d" and a nearly 10-minute version of "Quarantined." Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez would go on to fully embrace prog rock in their post-ATDI group The Mars Volta – Ward, Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar went on to form Sparta, which hued closer to their post-punk beginnings – and it appeared Monday that long instrumental passages are going to be a large component of this incarnation of At The Drive-In.
What that means for fans who have waited for this reunion for a decade or so is that the hair-on-fire antics that saw Bixler-Zavala use the stage as a sort of parkour playground may be pretty rare this time around. While the singer was plenty animated and in fine shrieking, bellowing voice throughout, the added "What will he do next?" sense of wonder was lacking. Rodriguez-Lopez, meanwhile, seemed like a man apart from the rest of the band, staying locked into a roughly two-square-foot spot the entire night and his only interaction coming while looking over to Hajjar to keep in sync with a song’s rhythm.
So there are still some chunks of rust that have to disappear before the 2012 version of At The Drive-In can do justice to the memory of a band at the peak of its power before disintegrating suddenly. But plenty of times Monday there were floodlight bright flashes of what the band once was and can still be. It was there on the stutter start of "Pattern AgainstUSer," the restrained fury of "Enfilade" and the precise chaos of "One Armed Scissor." It was during those moments when the crowd roiling in front of the five men seemed to feel most connected to the reconstituted if not yet fully reunited band.