Last Night: The Mars Volta at the Palladium Ballroom

The Mars Volta
Palladium Ballroom
September 16, 2009

Better than: Watching The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time on cable.

Last Night: The Mars Volta at the Palladium Ballroom
There was no opener at the Palladium last night. And, at the onset, there appeared no need.

El Paso's The Mars Volta launched into its set before an adoring, crowded room and, in short, it was an epic display.

Perhaps a little too pigeonholed by its past--having stemmed from the seminal At The Drive-In outfit, and all--The Mars Volta is a band that doesn't quite get the full credit it deserves. 'Cause, really, when it comes to modern prog rocks acts, there's this outfit, then everyone else.

To put it simply: To watch The Mars Volta perform its impossibly mesmerizing live set is to become a believer of the band's performing prowess. As guitar virtuoso Omar Rodriguez-Lopez leads the mind on a journey through an unpredictable labyrinth filled with churning twists, brutal turns and mind-bending spins, vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala leads the eyes down a more visual representation of the same journey. A masterful performer, Bixler-Zavala--aside from boasting a jaw-dropping vocal range--works a mic stand like no other in the business, effortlessly and fluidly tossing, dropping and lifting the stand, always teetering on the edge of the boundaries laid out by the six-piece band behind him, but, without fail, each time finding his way back to each song's center.

It's beyond compelling to watch as the band dabbles in prog rock, dips its toes into jam band territory and hints at a hard rock capability it chooses not to full-on display. Indeed, to succumb to a Mars Volta performance is to give up senses of place and time.

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Problem with this show, however, was that, when the band finished its set an hour and 40 minutes after starting it, that snap back to reality was a harsh one. This, remember, is a band known for its lengthy performances. And while a 100-minute gig is nothing to shake a stick at, the audience at the Palladium felt baffled--and, without a doubt, shortshifted--as Bixler-Zavala thanked the crowd and wished them goodnight.

Was this really the end of the performance? Hadn't the band played a three-hour set at the same venue just a year before? Y'know, when it didn't have a new album to promote?

As the house lights came on the and crowd started to realize that its chants of "One more song!" were going unanswered, the masses slowly started heading for the door. Outside the door, they waited again, and the underaged audience members--likely having told their rides not to bother coming back for two hours at least--simply milled about the front of the venue.

There was an obvious sense of diappointment at the length of the show--but nary a complaint about the strength of the 100 minutes that they had witnessed. A weird dichotomy, for sure.

And yet, it'd be tough to imagine anyone in the audience not feeling as if the band had played a show worthy of the price of admission. If anything, last night's performance showed that The Mars Volta, beyond simply being happy by dazzling its audiences with its dramatic live shows, had learned a new lesson: Always leave 'em wanting more.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
I didn't even realize this until about an hour before taking off for the venue, but not only do I own every Mars Volta LP and EP, I also out a live disc--which is weird, because I can't remember how I amassed them all, and I certainly don't remember listening to them all. Which, I think, makes sense: On record, The Mars Volta can come off as a little too much to swallow. Live, though, as the above description shows, I hope, it's a different story. And, for what it's worth, it rarely stales. This was my second time seeing the band this week, as I'd caught the band headlining Sunday night at the Monolith Festival over the weekend.

By The Way: Part of what makes Bixler-Zavala such a compelling performer is his mercurial personality. At one point, he railed on JFK and 9/11, claiming that we're all slaves and that ordeals like those can--and are--orchestrated acts by the government. Moments later, he was performing solely to the audience located off to the side of stage right, smiling and whooping it up, giving those crowds an almost private show of their own.

Random Note: The lines for the bar at the venue last night were hilariously short. Chalk it up to both the age of the audience and the likely substances prefered by this crowd...


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