At the Drive-In
Every unhappy teenager has that moment where they finally hear the band that truly speaks to them. It’s the instant where you realize what your favorite genre of music is supposed to sound like. For generations, it’s been bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Clash, and Led Zeppelin. Green Day, Wu-Tang Clan and Social Distortion are just a few examples for more modern times..
At 13, my friend Dustin handed me a burned Memorex CD-R with four letters written on it in Sharpie. I didn’t know what “ATDI” stood for at the time, but that disc didn’t leave my red Sony portable CD player for a long time. It was angrier than Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead, but far more interesting and complex than the decades-worth of punk rock I prided myself on knowing. It was exactly what I wanted music to sound like.
A few weeks later, I’d learn that “ATDI” stood for At the Drive-In, and that the record I’d been constantly spinning was called Relationship of Command. Dustin also told me that the group broke up about a year prior and likely wouldn’t be getting back together anytime soon.
My middle school friend Dustin was right.
Except for a handful of shows nowhere near where I was living (including an allegedly underwhelming performance at Coachella) in 2012, the Texas-based quintet hadn’t played a show since I got that CD in 2003. But after announcing a few festivals and then some sold-out shows in LA (and other parts of the country), At the Drive-In finally scheduled a show for me and all of their other fans in OC.
Given that the band parted ways with founding rhythm guitarist Jim Ward a few days ago and the fact that it was their first performance in almost four years, the Observatory was tense with anticipation and excitement. Would they still have energy? Could they sound the same after all of these years? Would they treat it as a half-assed rehearsal for tomorrow night’s benefit show in LA?
All questions were answered and doubts removed just a few notes into the set’s opener, “Arcarsenal.” “Pattern Against User” and “Sleepwalk Capsules” completed the opening Relationship of Command portion of the set as the packed crowd danced, moshed, yelled, and flailed their arms in delight to the sound of Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s signature combination of singing and screaming..
Not only did the 41-year-old Bixler-Zavala sound as powerful and emotional as he did two decades ago, but Omar Rodriguez-Lopez remains one of the most audibly recognizable and technically fascinating guitarists in modern music and both Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar carried the band’s rhythms as well as ever.
“Can I just say one thing, you guys?” Bixler rhetorically asked the crowd after the first three tunes. “I love that you all came here tonight. I can’t hold my tears back. Thank you all for being here.” The singer then went on to introduce the band’s new guitarist, Keeley Davis (who also plays with Sparta, for people who like to go full circle) and ask that everyone keep “an open heart and an open mind.”
Davis had nothing to apologize for, fitting in seamlessly with the band as they tore through both “300 Mhz” and “Proxima Centauri” from their Vaya EP and “Lopsided” from In/Casino/Out. The further into the set the five-piece got, the more comfortable they seemed. Rodriguez often intertwined one song into the next with small solos and jam-like riffs between actual tracks, while Bixler proved that he’s still the Michael Jackson of the post-hardcore scene with his combination of semi-anxious pacing and slick dancing during every opportunity.
Taking only seconds between songs, ATDI went back to Relationship of Command (which was clearly the record that most of the crowd knew) for exhilarating versions of “Invalid Letter Dept.,” “Enfilade,” and “Quarantined,” with Bixler dedicating the last track to a friend of his.
One of the longest pauses of the set occurred when Bixler took a moment to thank Bob Becker for signing them to Fearless Records back in the mid-’90s. “I don’t know if you’re out there, Bob, but thanks for taking a chance on us and putting us on your label when no one else would sign us,” Bixler said before explaining how many labels At the Drive-In went to and got turned down by when they were first starting.
Following performances of both “Chanbara” and “Ursa Minor,” the curly-haired frontman began addressing and playing with some of the “esés” of “beautiful SanTana.” With how serious and dark (the band was literally wearing all black) At the Drive-In can be, it was good to see the playful side of Bixler come out for a bit. The humor continued when a crowd-surfer bumped into the stage at the end of “Cosmonaut,” to which the vocalist simply replied “Damn Daniel…”
Perfectly chaotic renditions of “Metronome Arthritis” and “Catacombs” both got plenty of love from the crowd as the set crossed the hour-long mark, and Bixler took one more opportunity to address the crowd.
“We never called this a reunion,” Bixler said. “We called it a reignition.” The singer then went on to explain that even though the band was never really done. “We took a long break, but we’ll always come back to the people we love.”
With the set ending on “Napoleon Solo” and a version of “One Armed Scissor” that tested the infrastructure and security guards of the Observatory, the band thanked the crowd once more before exiting the stage. Although many thought there’d be an encore, the stage crew began dismantling the set before the house lights even came on.
After all of the tales of horror I’d heard from people who saw one of my favorite bands at Coachella four years ago, I only have one complaint following the show at the Observatory. I don’t have a ticket for Wednesday’s show at the Fonda.
Pattern Against User
Invalid Letter Dept.
One Armed Scissor