BY MICHAEL DONOVAN There’s a reason that anyone who has spent an evening with the Mars Volta will experience a sort of “Volta Flashback” when asked to recount the band’s live performance. There’s a reason that the Mars Volta rarely stops touring (usually only to record). There’s a reason that the Wikipedia entry on the Mars Volta makes reference to the band’s “wild, energetic, and improvised live shows” by line three. The reason? The Mars Volta as a live band is nothing short of jaw dropping. As a two-time veteran of the band’s live act, I can attest: seeing the Mars Volta, led by vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López, is like no other concert experience. It simply cannot be compared to any other band’s live show. It cannot be compared to anything, really. Seeing the Mars Volta is a near-holocaust of the senses that leaves “victims” in a daze for days.
In what ended up being a reality check I hoped would never come, however, I discovered last night that all of those accolades do not always apply. Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López, for the most part, were, quite simply, turned off. Sure, Rodríguez-López’s technical prowess on the six-strings remained unmatched as he blazed through solos on “The Widow” and “Goliath.” Sure, Bixler-Zavala’s banshee-esque scream can still shatter glass a mile away, as proved during “Wax Simulacra” and “Viscera Eyes.” Still, though, I couldn’t help but fear the entire night that what we were seeing was only a fraction of what the two were capable of. The rest of the band was in fine form, but were kept down by two leaders who were barely shadows of their normal selves. To the new crowd, Ced’s mid-set scaling of a stack of amplifiers only to vault off in the air was epic. To everyone else, though, more mind-blowing was that it took him so long in to the show to do it.
My worst fears proved to be true in the show’s explosive final moments—the band indeed was capable of much, much more. As if a switch had finally been flicked or a cable had finally been plugged in, the Mars Volta came alive during the evening’s closer, “Aberinkula,” with the kind of raw power and borderline insanity I had been longing for all night. Rodríguez-López entirely lost the control he had been inexplicably holding on to throughout the set and cut loose, destroying the song’s final riff and moving in a manner some might describe as epileptic. Bixler-Zavala danced with the fury that Volta fans have come to expect, as though the actions of his extremities were no longer under his jurisdiction. The rest of the band—horns, strings, percussion, and everything else they had hidden onstage—followed suit, and for those final moments I had the same feeling I had the first time I spent an evening with the Mars Volta: the “there is no way that this is happening in front of me right now” feeling.