The Mars Volta is not always an easy band to digest. One moment its acid-jazz-fueled rock seems maddeningly incoherent and noisy—the next it’s crystal clear and almost anthemic. Often, seeing the band live only magnifies this dichotomy.
On this Thursday night in the ’burbs of Atlanta, even The Mars Volta’s most ardent fans likely had a difficult time following each twist and turn that guitarist/producer/braintrust Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala and the six additional musicians that round out this ensemble had to offer. I doubt the band members care much, though, because they seemed to be having a better time than most of the audience members—99.9 percent of whom appeared to be counting the seconds until headliner Red Hot Chili Peppers took over.
Anyone hoping for a concise, play-the-hits type of show certainly left the arena disappointed, but that’s not to say the band didn’t offer up some gems for those paying attention. After appearing on stage to the strains of Ennio Morricone’s theme from A Fistful of Dollars (a typical Volta entrance) the band opened the show with the unreleased “Rapid Fire Tollbooth,” and followed it up with a 30-minute jam, which incorporated segments from a track from Rodriguez-Lopez’s self-titled solo album (“Jacob Van Lennepkade”) as well as several Mars Volta tunes (“Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus” and “Drunkship Of Lanterns” among them). Then, after this dense chunk of music, the band immediately launched into “Viscera Eyes” followed by “Day Of The Baphomets,” both from Amputechture, the most recent Mars Volta full-length offering. With the allotted one-hour set time already expired, the band disappeared quicker than the shifts between movements in the half-hour jam, amidst a cloud of feedback a wave of electronic sound effects and smatterings of applause.
Although The Mars Volta was as musically unpredictable as ever, its intricate and densely layered sound is not tailored for so large a venue, and this show was a perfect example of this. More often than not, the complicated musical arrangements were lost in a still-half-full hall—the sound bouncing around more than a tennis ball in a clothes dryer and producing an equally displeasing cacophony.
Approximately 20 minutes later, headliner Red Hot Chili Peppers took the stage to a deafening roar from the now-packed crowd. Blazing through many expected songs (“By The Way,” “Can’t Stop,” “Californication,” “Scar Tissue,” “Dani California,”) the Peppers focused mostly on recent material and played just one song (“Me & My Friends”) older than Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
In direct contradiction to The Mars Volta’s selections, the Chili Peppers’ set was snappy and obviously well-rehearsed. Often the planned-out nature of such a big rock spectacle—and it certainly was big, complete with moving video screens and a huge backdrop that spanned half the length of the ceiling—sucks the energy out of a performance, but band members Anthony Kiedis, Flea, John Frusciante and Chad Smith managed to maintain the vigor of their funk/rock hybrid, and even pulled out a few moderate surprises (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and the intro to “London Calling”).
Although no longer a groundbreaking act, for a ‘big’ rock show, one could certainly do worse than Red Hot Chili Peppers. And yet, despite the fact Frusciante and Flea are frequent Mars Volta contributors, the pairing just doesn’t quite work—unless Red Hot Chili Peppers want to start playing clubs instead of stadiums. Certainly any appearance by an act as innovative as The Mars Volta is welcomed, but the band would be much more effective in closer quarters.