Let's start with some context: The Mars Volta came to Phoenix's Dodge Theater last October and played a show that was, for lack of a better term, lacking. They played for less than an hour and left many people underwhelmed. It's unfortunate to judge the band to that precedent, but they have only themselves to blame.
Fast forward to last night with the band coming back tom Phoenix, to the exact spot where they played a shortened set marred with sloppiness. This time, The Mars Volta captivated the audience, playing a brilliant set that lasted well over 2 hours. The band learned from their mistakes this time around and were eager to erase any remnants from their last trip to The Valley.
As the crowd left the Dodge Theatre, the talk was of how "mind-blowing" and "fucking amazing" the band was -- and I, for one, wholeheartedly agree. While Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala are certainly the big names of The Mars Volta, they got their asses handed to them last night by drummer Thomas Pridgen -- and I mean that in the best way possible. It would impossible for me to review last night's show and not mention how unbelievable a drummer Pridgen really is.
He carried the band through their 2 hour set, providing the backbone. It's too bad his work is sometimes lost in The Mars Volta's 12 minute prog-rock odysseys. It came as very little surprise that some simple research on Pridgen reveals the fact that he was the youngest person to ever win a scholarship to the ultra prestigious Berklee College of Music at the ripe age of 15. He not only ripped through the band's more uptempo songs, but he managed to hold everything together when Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala decided to slow things down and jam for an extended period of time. He was allowed his time to shine with an all-too-brief solo, and those few moments were worth the price of admission alone.
The band played a surprisingly large number of their older songs, kicking things off with the always frenetic "Intertiatic ESP" from 2003's De-Loused in the Comatorium. They also managed to pre-date that song by playing "Eunuch Provocateur" from their 2002 Tremulant EP. Their version of "Viscera Eyes" from 2006's Amputechture was made all the more better with Bixler-Zavala's lucid Spanish vocals. The night's best song, however, was "Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)," a song I have always found to have an inescapable quality -- at times a soft-spoken diatribe complete with Bixler-Zavala's oft-nonsense lyrics, at other times a spastic rock song that is frighteningly catchy. When The Mars Volta broke into "Roulette Dares," the audience was, understandably, enthused.
That enthusiasm was pretty much what emanated throughout the audience for the night. The band hardly gave the fans time to react and applaud each song as it finished because they were too busy plotting their next 10 minute prog-rock journey. And once things had wrapped for the night, there was no bitching by the fans, there were no sour faces among the crowd as they filed out of the Dodge. If anything, they wanted more, and that's the mark of a truly great live band. The Mars Volta may have fucked things up last time they played Phoenix, but last night they made damn well sure that everyone in attendance got what they deserved.
Better Than: The last time the band played the Dodge.
Personal Bias: I am a humongous fan of At The Drive-In, and Bixler-Zavala is one of my all-time favorite lead singers. I also had the distinction of seeing the band in Seattle in the summer of 2003, fresh off the release of their first -- and in my opinion, best -- album, De-Loused in the Comatorium. That is still one of my favorite live sets.
Random Fact: Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez got to better know his much younger brother Marcel by inviting him to play percussion with The Mars Volta and the Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Quintet.
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Further Listening: It may be one of their more downtempo songs, but "The Widow" features some of Bixler-Zavala's best lyrics and always manages to sound amazing, and last night was no exception.
By The Way: The band's gigantic backdrops were pretty fucking creepy and at the same time transfixing. It was awesome when they changed to their second one of the night, and even more awesome when they finally revealed the eerie face that was plastered on it. They have always had a provocative aesthetic.