Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Mars Volta, Ventura Theatre, June 9th, 2009

I haven't updated this blog in ages and haven't written about or seen an opera in almost as long, so I thought I'd post some reviews of all the non-classical concerts I've been to this year. They'll probably make even less sense than the operatic reviews, so consider yourself warned!

First off, let me say that I would like to be reincarnated as the invisible naked woman who's apparently attached to Cedric Bixler-Zavala's microphone stand. Yeah, you'd take a little bit of a beating when he throws the stand around, but most of the time, he's seriously gyrating his hips in some very erotic ways. Well, either the invisible naked woman on the mic stand or the seat of Jack White's favorite chair. Either one would work for me.

But on the non less perverted stuff! We got to the venue super-early, which was kind of lame, but I was stressed about traffic on the 101, and for the first few miles, it lived up to my shitty expectations. So we had to stand around for about an hour before the band came on. They were playing some horrible repetitive music, and every time there was the slightest break in it, the crowd would start "woo!"ing like the band was going to come on. Troglodytes. Everyone knows that the Mars Volta only appears when the theme from A Fistful of Dollars plays. As befits their awesomeness!

The venue was pretty cool, and it was in a cute beachside shopping district, like a less annoying and vagrant-filled Third Street Promenade. I think the theater itself might have been a movie palace at some point? It's very old-fashioned-looking and intimate. I'm not sure if the acoustics are the best for a rock show, and the Mars Volta's notorious difficulties with getting their mix right were a problem for most of the show. The drums and bass were VERY loud and shook the floor, and sometimes Cedric's voice and even Omar's guitar would get lost. A lower-voiced singer would've been inaudible at times, but Cedric's shrieking can be counted on to cut through things. I almost wonder if he kind of prefers it that way and just considers himself another instrument in the band. There were a few times, though, when a certain sound, whether Cedric's voice or a specific instrument, would kind of float around the back of the theater and kind of tap me on the shoulder.

Speaking of Cedric, he talked to the audience more than I've ever seen him do before. He usually kind of ignores the crowd unless they're pissing him off somehow and mostly frolics around the stage or faces Omar. Last night, he told us that they were going to do a ton of new stuff, so if we didn't like it, we could go home and listen to our records. I kind of doubt that he would've noticed very much if we had all gone home. If the Mars Volta does a concert and no one's there to hear it, do they make a sound? Then, before they did "Ilyena", he said that the song was dedicated to all the people who spend their lives behind their computers talking shit about people who are actually out there being constructive and creating. Oh... my life... Well, I don't always talk shit, and then it's mostly about Robert Wilson or Achim Freyer, and I don't think a jury of Cedric and Omar and 10 other members of the Mars Volta Group would convict me for that. Something about the way he was talking about "computers" reminded me of George Michael on Arrested Development when he's talking about buying marijuana to smoke it "like a cigarette", like Cedric really didn't have any idea what these so-called "computers" were. I wanted to say, Bill McNeal-y, "Please, tell me more about these com-POO-ters." Then, after one song, he was being very mumbly and said something about Omar wanting to play a Jonas Brothers song (?) and that he thought it was crazy and Disney, Nickelodeon, blah, blah, we're all a big family, skip to the end, Omar's a dictator, and speaking of dictators, couldn't Hitler cover his shift?

The reason for his slurring was probably all the 'Tussin he was sucking down. Unless it was some kind of Slumber Tonic or patent medicine. He also kept gesturing to some lackey offstage, who would then appear with a cup of tea, which Cedric would sip and then spit out. He did a lot of spitting, really. He could only drink out of a cup once, too, before it had to be replaced. If he had a sore throat, though, I couldn't tell, because he sounded gorgeous and was flailing all over the stage. He did the Donkey and some silly "Safety Dance" leaps, in addition to at least 20 different fully executed microphone, microphone stand, and microphone cord maneuvers. The microphone antics were fewer than usual because he had to stand still and stay by his lyrics during the new stuff. He also did a lot of stripper dancing, chest-popping, and the silly move in which he shrieks into the microphone and then drops down into a squat like a tantrumming child who's refusing to walk.

When I could hear him, his voice was slightly nasal in places, but perfectly smooth and beautiful in others, even in the baffling parts where he was suddenly male and started singing really low. I think I've decided that my favorite kind of Cedric vocal this is his coo-purr-wail, which is a very specific amalgamation of cooing, purring, and wailing and has a chilling, unearthly quality. That being said, though, I'm still awfully fond of the shriek. I wish they'd do more stripped-down orchestrations once in a while, like on "Asilos Magdalena" or their cover of "Things Behind the Sun". For a long time, I didn't think that Cedric had a very sensual salad of a voice, but he really does.

I couldn't really see Omar for most of the show (or even hear him sometimes), but he was sporting a mid-size 'fro and Jimi Hendrix's old vest and bellbottoms outfit. Cedric was also wearing clothes he's worn tons of times, as was Juan Alderete, the bass player who looks like a high school teacher who would have an inspiring movie made about him. I guess after witnessing Jack White's devotion to his plaid pants and baked potato shoes, it shouldn't surprise me that financially successful people wouldn't buy new clothes more often. Poor Thomas Pridgen can't even afford a shirt! So we're all forced to look at his elegant Caribbean shoulders [/obscure Futurama reference].

Anyway, when I could hear Omar, he was amazing and had quite a few brilliant solos. What I really like is how incredibly different his playing is from my other favorite guitarist (Jack White, duh). Even though Jack's playing can be wild and uncontrolled, there's a precision about it, kind of. Maybe what I mean is that you can hear each note clearly, whereas Omar produces kind of a cloud of sound. As always, there were points when it was impossible to tell if it was Omar's guitar or Cedric's voice that was wailing, and it's kind of a reflection of their friendship, really -- they're very tuned into each other onstage; they lived together for a long time; they have the same geeky interests; they experience afro-lock together. Even when Omar does his solo thing, Cedric's usually there. They're like two spiralling sugar and phosphate strands held together with nucleotide bonds.

When he's not playing toward Cedric, Omar usually plays toward my hero Thomas Pridgen, and they had a long drum-and guitar solo in which they made sweet aural love to each other while all the other Voltas grooved on it, and Cedric would come in with a helpful, orgasmic yelp once in a while.

Pridgen was predictably incredible, if a little too loud (not his fault, of course). One solo was particularly impressive; he moves blindingly fast. Ikey Owens was having a whale of a time on keyboards, judging from his flailing, but he was hard to hear, which was also the case at the Detour Festival. Alderete's bass was also loud but good as usual, and poor Marcel Rodriguez Lopez looked bored as hell on his percussion instruments. I think that's just how he looks, though.

I haven't really formed an opinion on the new material yet, and I think they need some time to get comfortable with it too. I liked it a lot, but they seemed tentative and Cedric couldn't freak out as usual while singing it and didn't seem to have quite found the emotional center of the songs and so couldn't color his voice as much on them. That sentence reads awfully toolishly. I think they're trying to make an effort to not musically wank so much, and seemed to be trying to cut off the songs by having the stage go black when the song was officially over, so that was a little forced at times. Let the wank flow like a mighty river! Ew. Anyway, that's really just a minor nitpick, considering they played for nearly two hours and the tickets were only $20. The new material will only get stronger as the tour goes on, and in London I'll be able to appreciate it more after listening to the new album obsessively a few thousand times.

Here's the set-list:

Roulette Dares (The Haunt of): I think they almost always open with this, and yet I still got goosebumps all over when it started. Minimal wank and the song didn't finish as it normally does, but still pretty amazing. I wish the balance had been better so I could've heard "Exoskeletal junction at the railroad delayed" more clearly.

Drunkship of Lanterns: Lots of flailing and microphone antics, plus some patented Cedric hip-wiggling.

Teflon: new song

Wax Simulacra: I remember grinning like an idiot during this one.

Viscera Eyes: Kind of trailed off like a wank comet, but still great.

Halo of Nembutals: new

Ilyena: Damn those com-POO-ter people! Nice creepy voice at the beginning.

Desperate Graves: new

Cotopaxi: new

Goliath: Since Cedric was horking up so much junk (mucus is not a toy, sir!), I was afraid he wouldn't be able to do the freak-out, but he did. And how!

Luciforms: new

The Widow: The audience went crazy for this one, probably because it's the only one of their songs that got steady radio play. Still, the most straight-forward orchestration of the song made Cedric's voice stand out more.

Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus: A nearly never-ending song that I never wanted to end. Sadly, after the song ended, Cedric bid us all goodnight with a bizarre "Live Long and Prosper" wave. I do flove them so -- maybe not in the "they're so cute and everything they do is so cute" way that I flove the Raconteurs, but still flove -- and I can't wait to see them again.

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