Maybe it's unfair to hold a band up against its younger self, but the reunited At the Drive-In is asking for it.
Fifteen years ago, no other band in the country embodied the concept of "capturing lightning in a bottle" more than the Texas quintet. Its combustible yet radio-ready brand of post-hardcore—performed with a freeform energy that looked unlike anything in mainstream rock at the time—seemed like the antidote to nu-metal's post-millennial dominance, the potential tectonic shift to open the landscape to a newer, fresher wave of aggressive rock'n'roll. When the band instead imploded from the exhaustion of six years touring in obscurity, just as it was beginning to catch fire, it froze them in that particular moment, a what-if contained to a specific time and place. How could they expect to just pick up where they left off, and have it mean anywhere close to the same thing?
If At the Drive-In didn't quite answer that question last night at the sweaty, sold-out Crystal Ballroom, it certainly made a spirited go of it anyway. Opening with "Arcarsenal," the eruptive opener of 2000's near-commercial breakthrough Relationship of Command, the only noticeable difference in form was the absence of founding guitarist Jim Ward, who quit just before the start of tour. (Well, that, and the few extra pounds around singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala's waist.) Otherwise, the band may have actually sounded better than in its heyday, when its members would thrash around so violently they'd be out of breath and out of tune by the end of the first song.
Not that they've placed precision above urgency—they've just learned to control their chaos. At age 41, Bixler-Zavala was more careful to preserve his voice, screaming less and deploying his "Geddy Lee getting stuck with a cattle prod" bray more, but he remained a blur of perpetual motion, crawling over amps, whipping the mic around like an Olympic baton twirler and leaping off the monitors into the surging crowd. Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez—who looked wholly disinterested in being onstage during the band's run of dates four years ago—found his bliss in the expanded instrumental sections of "Enfilade" and "Invalid Litter Department," peeling off the proggy solos that became his signature during the intervening years with the Mars Volta. Drummer Tony Hajjar and bassist Paul Hinojos, always relatively anonymous compared to the whirling Afros beside them, are easier to appreciate in this incarnation, especially on the more patient material such as the elliptical "Quarantined" and emotional high-point "Napoleon Solo."
In between songs, Bixler-Zavala dispensed with his usual surrealist anti-banter, choosing instead to reminisce about forming the band in small-town El Paso and gush over drummer Tony Hajjar's two small children waiting back on the bus. (He also took time to shout out the late Andrew Loomis and the X-Ray Cafe.) It was those moments of genuine affection toward the band, and the interpersonal relationships within it, that said the most about why they've bothered to bring At the Drive-In back now, as middle-aged dudes with little more frizz in their 'fros. It's not an attempt to make up for lost time, or reclaim a feeling that's long since dissolved. Lightning doesn't go back in the bottle, and they seem to know that. Sometimes, though, catching a tingle of that old electricity can be enough.
All photos by Henry Cromett.