Like a freight train coming (a freight freight train coming), the At The Drive-In reunion tour recently tore through London, a righteous, adrenalised punk-rock throwdown that left fans dazed, sweat-beaded and ready for more.
The tour marks the El Paso hardcore mavericks’ second stab at reforming; an earlier reunion tour in 2012, which saw the group playing together for the first time since their 2001 split, spluttered out after the first batch of dates. And this batch of shows also seemed thrown into question a couple of weeks ago, after the group announced, at the last moment, that guitarist/vocalist Jim Ward wouldn’t be accompanying At The Drive-In on this sortie, for undisclosed reasons. But the triumphant, ballistic noise on display at London’s Roundhouse Sunday night was evidence of a group on the sharpest form of their career, and affirmed that the quintet aren’t just returning to action for reasons of filthy lucre. Here are some things we learned from their fired-up 60-minute set…
1. JIM WARD’S ABSENCE WAS NO BIG DEAL AFTER ALL
Of course, for sentimental reasons it sucks that the ‘classic’ Relationship Of Command line-up wasn’t able to make it over this time, and we’re all still in the dark over the reason behind his absence from the stage for this tour. But while Ward was a key ingredient to the band’s earlier success, the truth is ATD-I did fine without him on Sunday night, his rhythm guitar parts ably handled by Keeley Davis (an old friend of the group’s who played guitar in Ward’s post-ATD-I project Sparta, and led cult Richmond, Virginia punk groups Engine Down and Denali), his serrated backing-bark on tracks like One-Armed Scissor shared between lead guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Keeley. Ward’s a talented artist and musician, but ATD-I were no less thrilling for his nonappearance.
2. OMAR IS COOKING ON GAS
Rodriguez-Lopez’s performances during ATD-I’s first reunion tour in 2012 won the ire of some fans, who demanded to know why the firebrand guitarist was no longer zipping about the stage like a demented Fraggle, as he did back-in-the-day. In subsequent interviews, Omar ascribed his reticence to discomfort at revisiting the darker moments of his personal life covered by the ATD-I era, though it’s likely it was his mother’s passing just before the tour began that kept the usually irrepressible guitarist lurking gloomily by his amplifier on that tour. Whatever, that cloud had certainly passed by Sunday night, the skinny little guy hurtling about the state and lost in moments of overdriven guitar freakout throughout the set. His dark, heavy soloing during Quarantined was a particular highlight.
3. CEDRIC BIXLER-ZAVALA SHOULD BE A STAND-UP
Save for a heartfelt thanks to the ATD-I faithful before set-closer One-Armed Scissor, frontman Cedric was on commendably dippy form when it came to between-song banter, rambling with lysergic wit and asking if anyone in the audience was wearing short-shorts. “Just the boys,” he grinned, after receiving a perhaps-dishonest reply in the affirmative from the crowd, before adding, “Who likes short-shorts? I like short-shorts.” Leaping off massive speaker-stacks, crowd-surfing, delivering mirthful nonsense jabber from the stage – is there nothing Cedric can’t do?
4. ATD-I’S ROOTS RUN DEEP
Much of Sunday’s set drew from the group’s breakthrough (and final, to date) album Relationship Of Command, including an opening brace of thrashers (Arcarsenal, Pattern Against User) that alone confirmed the group as one of punk’s most vital, electrifying acts. But there were a couple of deep cuts in the setlist that dipped further into their past, in particular a moving Napoleon Solo, the bared-heart slow-burner Cedric penned in tribute to Laura Beard and Sarah Reiser, his former bandmates in The Fall On Death Ears, both killed in a car accident 20 years ago. Bixler-Zavala’s anguished howls of “This is forever” were a memorable highlight.
5. THEY WILL BE BACK
Cedric said as much in his final salute to the audience, before One-Armed Scissor. And hopefully next time they’re here they’ll be able to play some of the new material that the group have already disclosed working on, making this reunion no mere money-making farrago, but the first steps of a band that’s crawled from the grave and is ready to start slam-dancing its way back to life. Whether Ward will be back with them too is unclear, but on tonight’s evidence that’s no reason not to sell your liver for a ticket when the next dates are announced.