Sunday, May 01, 2005

Got back today from seeing The Mars Volta in Atlanta, and I am beat. Danny and I decided to make a weekend of it; since he's not a Mars Volta fan, I made a deal with him that we would stop at every pawn shop we saw (and we saw plenty). Alas, other than a beat up Jazz bass and a '71 Strat that had, in his words, been "butchered" with the addition of a Kayler tremolo, he didn't see anything to strike his fancy.

I had been looking forward to this show for nearly two months, and was so excited that I hadn't been able to sleep the night before we left. I've been boring everyone I know (especially Danny) to death talking about The Mars Volta, but they truly are one of the most exciting bands I've heard in years. As a guitar player, I appreciate what Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is doing, but the main reason I like the band is because of Cedric Bixler Zavala's voice. There are very few vocalists I really like -- I've often said that I wish all music was instrumental, which is a bit of an exageration, but just a bit. Obviously, there are times when he sounds like Robert Plant (and, if you know me, you know Led Zeppelin is my alpha band). But he really reminds me of Freddy Mercury, not so much in the way his voice sounds but in the way he uses his voice, drenching it in sex and emotion and playing it as if it's another instrument. I've given up trying to figure out the lyrics, which I think is just as well. I don't think there's one particular meaning that you can draw out of any Mars Volta lyric. Whenever I sing along to any of their songs, I latch on to the few words I recognize, then make up something new to go along with it.

As I was writing this, I was thinking that Cedric's voice also reminds me somewhat of Diamanda Galas, especially in the way she mixes languages and screams with such abandon. If you crossed Diamanda and Freddy and sped it up to 45 RPM it would probably sound pretty close to Cedric.

Anyway, Danny and I ended up taking the long way (40 to 95 to 20) because he said there would be much less traffic and, I suspect, because he knew of more pawn shops along the way. That made the journey all the more exciting for me because it reminded me of going to see concerts when I was a kid. I grew up in coastal N.C., which at the time was a six-hour drive from Greensboro, where most of the major bands played (I-40 shaved about an hour and a half off the driving time). Going to a concert meant taking off from school, staying in a motel, going to the mall(!) and eating at exotic restaurants like Taco Bell. That was assuming my friends and I could talk someone's parents or older siblings into taking us. Driving into Atlanta, pulling up to the Holiday Inn and seeing other Volta fans from Mississippi or South Carolina lugging their stuff inside really evoked that feeling. Half the people at that show must have been staying at that Holiday Inn, which literally was right across the street from the club (The Tabernacle). When I checked in, I asked the guy where the club was, and before I could even finish he just pointed out the door.

"Who in the world is playing over there tonight?" he asked. When I told him, he wanted to know what kind of music it was, and not really knowing what to say, I just told him "space rock."

He nodded his head.

"Sounds very interesting," he said.

Danny wanted to nap, but I was too keyed up to sleep. I suspect he also wanted to mentally prepare himself for a "space rock" onslaught. I don't know anyone who loves the guitar more than Danny, but his guitar heroes tend to be more the virtuoso type (he would probably disagree with me on that). I had played him lots of Volta, and he didn't seem to really like it or hate it. I just didn't move him. But, God bless him, he went to the show with me even though his friend told him he was whipped and he had to miss King Diamond. He made up for it by wearing a Mercyful Fate T-shirt to the show.

What happened next was one of those times where I really wish I could just have a giant "do-over" in my life. If I did, I would have stuck to my original plan, which was to go to the balcony and get a good seat. Instead, I walked out onto the floor found a good spot right in front of Omar, and decided to stay there. Danny shook his head and said if I needed him he'd be in the back of the club. If I had that do-over, I would also have brought my brand new digital camera which has movie mode with sound. I debated for about a week whether or not I should bring it, but really didn't want to have it taken away from me or get kicked out of the show. Besides, I figured someone else would have a camera and would post photos one one of the fan sites. As it turns out, I think just about everyone in the crowd except me had a camera. When the lights came down and "Fistful of Dollars" started playing, there were so many flashes going off I felt like I was at a Hollywood premiere. Yet, when I whipped out my cell phone and tried to get a quick pic, a woman who worked at the club told me to stop. It was just as well; all I got was a blue blur.

Since this was my first time seeing Mars Volta, I didn't really know what to expect. As much as I love Cedric's voice, he sounds really off key on many of the bootlegs that I've heard. I couldn't hear him as clearly as I would have liked (and I couldn't hear Ikey at all), but what I did hear sounded flawless. I can't wait to find a bootleg of the show because I'd really like to hear what I was missing. "Concertina," one of my favorite Mars Volta songs (they played it second), was hair-raising. Other folks have written on The Comatorium that they thought the band wasn't as into it as they usually are. I can't really speak to that, but there was a lot less jumping around by Omar and Cedric than I thought there would be.

But of course, it wasn't too far into "Drunkship of Lanterns" (the first song) when I felt the first surge, slamming me from the right, into the barricade and the guy next to me. That's when I knew that I had probably made a big mistake in not sticking to my original plan. I truly can't figure out why anyone would want to mosh or crowd surf to The Mars Volta. I guess music affects people in different ways. The Mars Volta makes me either want to dance or just close my eyes and chill -- usually within the same song, which is one of the reasons this band is so great. Apparently it alo inspires really tall, baseball cap-wearing fools to elbow people in the head and scream out, "Omar, you fucking rock dude!"

As the music slowed, the surging slowed, like a sea being calmed. But as the tempo and tension would build, the crowd would surge again, arms and hair flailing, sweaty bodies washing over me. I grabbed the railing with both hands, locked my elbows by my sides and tried to push back. Somewhere in the middle of "Cygnus," I realized my fingers were going to sleep, and I thought to myself, 'I love this band too much to be this miserable while trying to see them,' so I slogged my way through the crowd and stumbled out. That gave me a good opportunity to get a beer and buy a T-shirt from the merch guy who comiserated with me about "the kids these days."

"I swear, this crowd would mosh to Chopin," he said.

Back in the main room I found Danny sequestered in a little alcove, which would have been the perfect place to see "L'Via" if it hadn't been for some really tall girl with a really big head gesticulating wildly to her friend about something and paying
not one bit of attention to the band. I spent the remainder of that song dodging back and forth, trying to figure out where she was moving and see around her. Since it was slightly quieter there, I asked Danny what he thought so far. He said that he feels like a band really shows its passion in the slower songs, and that he couldn't see it in them, even though they were very passionate in the faster songs. He also admired the way Cedric worked the crowd. The next day surprised me with a pretty damn good impression both of Cedric's microphone moves and the sounds that Omar was getting from his guitar.

We walked along the lower balcony trying to find a better spot. Finally, right as "Cassandra Gemini" was beginning, we struck pay dirt on the left (Omar's side). I got my first truly unobstructed view of the night (albeit, from behind the band, and was rewarded with a truly electrifying version of the song. At the end of the song, before they walked off stage, I also got to see a roadie hand Omar his glasses, which were resting on a towel like some sort of holy relic.

We decided to wait a while and let the crowd thin out before we left. That's when we talked to a girl from South Carolina who said that the band was going to play Music Midtown in Atlanta in June. They're actually playing the Bonaroo fest, not too far from Atlanta, that weekend, so it's definitely possible. Or she could have just been mixed up and meant Bonaroo. I can't see myself going to Bonaroo, but if the Music Midtown rumor turns out to be true I have a feeling I'll be taking another journey to Atlanta soon.

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