Sunday November 4th, 2001 at El Torreon in Kansas City, MO
The Anniversary, Mars Volta, & Mates of States
I felt a little dirty going to this show. I mean I knew what was waiting for me a couple of hundred kids who haven't been to a show since the Dashboard Confessional/Saves the Day/Her Mercedes/Hot Rod Circuit show nearly four months ago. They have all the songs memorized because they own all the albums and they'll close their eyes and sing every song. Maybe it's just youth that bugs me or maybe somewhere I envy their separation from the bands and their music. To them it's magical and these are rock stars and this is a special night to be dreamt about for months. To me, it was just a Sunday night and a show in a crowded venue. Although there's something awesome about the look in the eyes of these kids, the hero worship and disjunction just seems so foreign to me. Is that really what music is about, that barrier between fawning audience and pedestalled rockers? God I hope not.
Although I had nearly talked myself out of going to the show less than an hour before, when the duo of Mates of States began playing I couldn't have been happier to be there. I found an excellent perch on the side of the stage only inches from drummer/vocalist Jason Hammel and mere yards of uninterrupted view from keyboardist/vocalist Kori Gardner. From this vantage point I was able to see the cocked smiles and wide communicative gazes shared between the couple which reminded me of my own eyes staring across the card table at my sister, begging her to lead spades. Communicating silently to signal changes and stay together as the monitors cut in and out seemed to be only half of it; the other half was pure joy and wonderment the same look the kids standing in the front row had.
Of course the other side of things might be the band's music. Well, light and twee and poppy and playful and smart and terribly cute. There are harmonies and there is a reckless abandon to the vocals which seems to follow the kindercore if-you're-going-to-sing-just-do-it-and-do-it-loudly" philosophy. Gardner's Yamaha organ plinked out delightful melodies worthy of an ice skating rink as well providing a solid bass line as well. Jason played his small kit creatively allowing for much more permutations and changes than you could get away with in a fuller band. However with two vocals, drums, a bass line, and keyboard melodies, a full sound is exactly what was produced.
The once local, now San Francisco-based band played several songs from a promised new album (all of which were lovely) and as they ended their forty-minute set the audience was left wishing for more and pondering their loss. Not many bands leave Kansas City (for better or worse), but why did it have to be this one?
I hopped down from my perch and went in search of people I knew. Luckily I have so few friends that they were all in the same spot, standing around Erin who was still vibrating with glee. Bad music on the PA helped the euphoria wear off quickly and the subject turned to what Mars Volta might sound like. Would the band be as entertaining as guitarist Omar Rodriguez's afro? Would frontman Cedric Bixler explode on the stage like he did in At the Drive In? Will this really sound like a blues-based, classic rock, soul explosion presided over by Sly and the Family Stone? Okay well no one really asked that last question ahead of time, but afterwards I found myself with a very similar preponderance.
Mars Volta is the unfortunate result of indie kids bringing outside influences into the scene and coming up a bit short. The energy, the intent, even the performances were grand; the shortcoming, however, was the way in which the band realized their vision. Nearly everything from the soul-fired organ to the delay on the vocals seemed contrived, like the band had put this together of deliberate pieces with preconceived notions of how it should all play out. The music itself lacked an identity soulless soul?
As The Anniversary began to set up I continued to think about the last time I saw the band and how very little this band resembled the one I remembered. There were differences in hair and clothes and musical equipment that were easy to spot, but there was also a change that was the result of a trip around the world and over a hundred shows performed in the last year. The band seemed weary; they weren't relaxed and conversational, but rather at their jobs putting on a show for the kids in the front row. Being the exclusionary elitist bastard that I am I thought back to nights at the Bottleneck or Replay with Proudentall or The Believe It Or Nots and the sense of camaraderie, of connectivity. Although The Anniversary hasn't relocated to far-off coasts like Mates of State, I think Kansas City has lost them all the same.
At this point my friends separated into four camps: first there were the fans of The Anniversary, there were those curious about the leaked new "mature" sound of the band, there were those who stuck around only because they paid the money to get in, and then there were those that left before the circus brought out the elephants balancing on balls. With motivations like that I'm not sure anyone could have been disappointed.
The band's set seemed to draw equally from Your Majesty to be released in the January 2002 and their first effort, Designing For a Nervous Breakdown, released in January 2000. The newer material revealed a widening gap in the band with songs sung (and presumably penned) by Justin Roelof sounding much more rock than those by Josh Berwanger. In total the set was more rock than pop with even older songs being re-written to de-emphasize some of the ear candy keyboard trappings present in earlier recorded versions. Although the audience didn't reject the rock numbers, they were obviously more excited to hear the "new"-wave pop songs they've had memorized for almost two years. When the band closed with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (the only song I remembered from earlier club days) the audience had gotten what they came for and there were no calls for encores. At 11pm on a school night many had already broken their curfews and many others had to leave the club quickly to meet the parents who idled in their SUVs and minivans out in the parking lot.
Me? Well I'm not sure yet. I guess it'll depend on what the new album brings for the band, and how they react to whatever that may be. Music is about much more than the notes digitized and imprinted on a spinning disc of plastic. It's about the band and their interaction with fans and each other -- their humility and their aspirations. Have the band already sold their souls? I'll continue to hold out judgment and hope for the best.