Four days before At The Drive-In kicked off their fledgling reunion in Los Angeles, founder member and near ever-present Jim Ward – who hadn’t been informed of new dates at the time they were announced – formally quit the band.
If the rocker’s second reformation had the potentially to be a touch roughshod after the late-notice departure of a key member, the fiery reality – which saw Sparta man Keeley Davis stepping into Ward’s shoes – was more like a rebirth.
The opening date of the European tour was intense, featuring a setlist heavy on ‘Relationship of Command’ material and delivered with brazen confidence. The post-hardcore act exploded with energy, mixing skitty guitars and extended interludes with moments of brash, brute-force power at Dublin’s Vicar Street.
‘Arcarsenal’ gave way to ‘Pattern Against User,’ Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Keeley Davis wrapping the twin guitar parts around each other with confidence, while Cedric Bixler-Zavala swung the mic stand and leaped from angled corners as he delivered his trademark strained vocals.
As Vicar Street transformed into a sweatbox, Bixler-Zavala shared a couple of surreal asides on smoking pheromones, telling the crowd to get “talc in all the right places, and at the end of the night you can smoke it.”
Professing to be “high on Ireland” himself, the frontman was the centrepiece, bouncing from one corner of the stage to the other and hitting the floor to writhe and screech his way through chorus lines, with ‘300MHz’ seeing Bixler-Zavala pull out a floppy robot dance.
‘Enfilade’ – complete with an extended jazzy mid-section and a riotous launchpad of a chorus in that “freight freight train coming,” line – preceded ‘Ursa Minor’, the ‘Vaya’ EP track stark and shiny next to the bite and growl of ‘Relationship of Command’ moments, and showcasing the slightly sloppy beauty of Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar parts.
“This is a reignition, not a reunion,” Bixler-Zavala offers, chipping in with a spooky-feel melodica solo on ‘Quarantined’ as the subtle electronic edge and drum-leaning slower moments allowed monster peaks to build.
In truth, Ward’s absence goes almost unnoticed, with the return boisterous, abrasive and at times unsettlingly tense, filled with the kind of raw feeling that lifts shows to another tier.
Like any reunion, there will be accusations of ‘cashing in’, but when At The Drive-In come back with such live vigour, even the absence of much-teased new tracks in the opening three reunion shows isn’t enough to give the idea serious credibility. This feels like At The Drive-In circa 2000; volatile and raw, stark and memorable.
“When I see you guys up here I get fucking emotional, I just want to say thank you,” Bixler-Zavala said before dedicating ‘Napoleon Solo’ to “lost colleagues” and serving it up a with a loaded vocal tweak mid-verse that rings with hurt.
And then with a bouncing, battering rendition of ‘One Armed Scissor’, it all came to its abrupt end. Bixler-Zavala falls ragdoll-esque to the stage, and encore-less and leaving a marked ringing in the ears, the Texans are gone.
At The Drive-In played:
‘Pattern Against User’
‘Invalid Litter Dept.’
‘One Armed Scissor’
(Photo – Reading Festival 2012)