The Mars Volta maybe exists on some alternate timeline that has somehow become enmeshed in our own. Birthed from the dissolution of one of the most volatile and vital acts of the late 90’s, At The Drive-In, The Mars Volta blends their mix of neo-traditional Central American music, psych and progressive rock, and, I don’t know cinematic acid jazz into a distinct and often enigmatic melange of abstract melody and off-centeredness. All of which is anchored by the interplay between founding members, vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist/producer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez - who, along with a semi-stable group of recording and touring musicians - are The Mars Volta.
For this tour the band brought along Teri Gender Bender as the only supporting act and, to be perfectly honest, I had no idea what I was going to witness. On the Brady Music Center's massive stage, the band setup in front of The Mars Volta’s walled off gear, closely grouped and oddly intimate for the space.
Arriving on stage in matching tie dye unicorn onesies - or in Teri Gender Bender’s case, a matching robe and pants, with a bodysuit underneath - the band moved through a set of about 10 songs that leaned heavily on groove to subtly reinforce and help highlight Teri Gender Bender’s purposely awkward and incredibly entertaining stage presence, as well as their sporadically massive vocal performance.
It was a set that I didn’t know I really enjoyed until it was over, and now, having listened to what they sound like recorded versus live, I find the setlist even more interesting in the way it stayed within the confines of a very specific tempo and even more specific mood.
Turns out, the tempo, mood, and Teri Gender Bender’s general vibe made them the ideal, and maybe even only sensible act, to open this string of tour dates for The Mars Volta. Taking the stage, they set out quickly to establish that the night was going to be All Vibes, All The Time. Pensive, ambient noise eased the crowd into what would be a wide-ranging and incredibly well balanced set of better known tracks from their earlier albums, detours throughout to newer material, all perfectly timed to a truly inspired stage and lighting sequence.
Where songs would meander into unknown territory - be it via Rodriguez-Lopez’s intensely weird guitar work, their keyboard player wandering off into some truly wild places, or Bixler-Zavala’s particular and personal brand of vocalizations - they would always come back to a place that made sense and tied into where they were in the set, The Vibe untouched.
This being my first time seeing The Mars Volta live - and, really, spending more than a few minutes with the band in one sitting - I was fascinated both by what they were and what they weren’t. Part of me laments that I never got to see At The Drive-In’s distinct and notorious chaos unleashed in-person, but having now seen both bands that started from the same exact place (the other being Sparta, who also formed after The Drive-In’s demise) within just a couple months of each other, it’s easy to see why they each went the directions they did.
This was a show that it was easy to enjoy, even if it’s a style of music that can be a bit challenging to both get and get into. And trust - the crowd was into it. Oddly constructed, beautifully performed, controllably chaotic, quietly energetic - they feel, to me, like a band that is purposely at odds with itself, one that thrives on self-inflicted tension. There’s no malice or self-deprecation involved - it’s all done with a sense of pleasure it seems - but it’s there, and I find that utterly fascinating. To see it captured and performed so well onstage at The Andrew J. Brady Music Center was a sincere delight. It’s a performance I’ll be thinking about for some time.