It took 15 years to happen, and it was worth every moment.
Ten were spent wondering, with all involved working on new projects, exploring music and art in numerous forms. Two passed, with excited fervor and mild confusion, as they returned to the fold, thrust into the spotlight on unsteady feet and with only a handful of appearances, most before massive stadiums and festival crowds. The final three were marked with conflict, self-discovery, acceptance, and a renewed discovery of self — plus a new band to bring that unstoppable fire back to the front lines.
Thus, 15 years later, here we are. At The Drive-In has returned — and this time, they are just as ready to celebrate their reunion as we have been for the past decade and a half.
Opening the long-sold-out Warfield performance were the wildly-energetic and sonically-mesmerizing Le Butcherettes, who have shifted shape once more for a solid new lineup. With bassist Chris Common now taking over drum duties and Riko Rodríguez-López filling his empty space, the dynamic between the rhythm section and frontwoman Teri Gender Bender has reached stunning new heights. While she shrieked, snarled, sang, stomped, and hurled herself about, both behind her keys and across the stage, the other players moved with fury and precision, thundering out a steady set of beats to follow behind her manic sounds. While less outwardly chaotic than their earlier years had been, this was a welcome change; none of Le Butcherettes’ feverish manner was absent, and their sound was full and focused — a precision strike on the listener. Afterwards, Teri leapt into the crowd, offering warm and sweaty embraces to all who would welcome her.
Long minutes after Le Butcherettes finished, the rabid audience was offered the first taste of the intense camaraderie that At The Drive-In now possessed: a striking unity in their aesthetic and onstage visuals. Bright-orange amplifiers and eerie hanging backdrops were all emblazoned with their iconic new logo — a pair of interlocking chevrons — and the band themselves dressed all in black, bearing their insignias on shoulder patches, guitar straps, and belt buckles. Bathed in shadows and lit by faint blue hues, only a faint hum — the precursor to the sonic miasma that was about to be unleashed — could be heard above the ecstatic screams of the crowd, as the band finally took their places. However — as the wide-open stage, absent of monitors, would indicate — this was not a band moving in morose lockstep, cranking out their work as steadily as they had done on their records. The maraca-laden introduction of “Arcarsenal” was a final warning to all who beheld it: This is it. This is actually happening. Absolute insanity is about to ensue.
The moment the first verse kicked into gear was a monumental thunderclap of sensory overload. Piercing white strobes and brilliant orange lights burst across the men onstage, who exploded across the stage as if pursued by wild beasts. Singer Cedric-Bixler Zavala pounced onto the drumkit and leapt off as if suddenly scalded, his mic cord slashing across the stage like an angered serpent. The cataclysm of sound that erupted from guitarists Omar Rodríguez-López and Keeley Davis was as stunning and fulfilling as it was sonically rich in texture. Zavala’s bellowed shouts followed suit; if anything, his time spent singing for The Mars Volta and Antemasque had improved his pipes tenfold, for his sung notes were just as powerful as his baleful screams that punctuated the space between verses. Every moment of the next few minutes was one of white-hot unyielding energy — and this was only the first song of the evening.
Everything that had transpired in the bands that Rodríguez-López, Zavala, bassist Paul Hinojos (who had also spent time in both The Mars Volta and Sparta), and drummer Tony Hajjar had worked in, during their time away from At The Drive-In, was fully realized in this formation, and brought the entire performance to a grand new dimension. Rodríguez-López’s sonic tinkering, intricate jams, and newly-realized vocals, were in full form and drove each song with startling potency; he even threw in some extended solos to “Quarantined”, which spiraled outwards in an enthralling set of soundscapes and grooves. Zavala’s voice, now built up into an impressive tenor, was bright and full, and he abandoned piercing shrieks in favor of captivating high notes. Hinojos stayed stoic and steady, but traded glances and beats with Hajjar, who sounded devastatingly powerful with each of his thundering blasts of drumwork.
Any sort of nervousness or uncertainty that had been prevalent in 2012 was completely gone, and the band’s gratefulness for their fans’ continued devotion was absolutely prominent. Zavala remarked on his time spent in the Bay Area, the first gigs that they were able to scrape together with help from the community, and his absolute astonishment that people were still just as wildly excited to see them as they were 15 years ago. He dedicated the closing number, their massive favorite “One Armed Scissor”, to everyone in the Bay Area, and had earlier dedicated “Napoleon Solo” to those forgotten and passed on. He even leapt into the crowd, surfing along the top and banging heads together with excited fans, numerous times throughout the set. Dazed as they may have been by the continued support of all who came to the show, it didn’t knock their energy or focus out of step, and they tore through their set with amazing vigor.
After the short and overall abrupt reunion-and-then-re-collapse of At The Drive-In in 2012, I had believed that the dream of seeing this monumental group, these founders of mindbending music, was likely dead and gone forever. If anything, however, it was the last thing they needed to fully begin the process to start anew, and their work that followed — in Antemasque, Bosnian Rainbows, ZAVALAZ, and other projects — was fully translated into the masterful performance that they’ve returned to the world with. These fifteen long years have been a significant wait, but their fans have kept the spark alive, and their everlasting hope was repaid in full, with startling levels of interest.
The world has been in need of a new sonic upset. At The Drive-In have returned to kick over the throne and build something new.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos are © 2016 Jonathan Pirro.
At The Drive-In: