THE MARS VOLTA
at the Wiltern LG, May 12
After a stint of restricted sets on their recent arena jaunt with fellow progsters A Perfect Circle, the Mars Volta were ready to stretch out and make us wait tonight. Indeed, aside from the Daltrey-on-ice showmanship of front-twig Cedric Zavala, this was like gatecrashing a rehearsal.
Zavala and his similarly underfed guitarist foil, Omar Rodriguez, have already helmed, in At the Drive-In and now the Mars Volta, two of the greatest live acts of the last decade, but this latest vehicle is fast becoming a true band. After repeated lineup shuffles, they’re now oozing a monster connection with both audience and each other through their drum-’n’-bass-filtered Rush/Santana epics. Increasingly they huddle around stoic sticksman Jon Theodore, whose performance defies all logic and limitation. What for mortal drummers would be the fill of the set is merely the beat for Theodore, who’s literally on a roll all night: indelible snare tattoos back-to-back with bewildering tom-tom visitations and frenetic loop-inspired super-shuffles. Fluttering congas, death-rattle maracas, Lost in Space retro-synth SOS’s and game-show Farfisa frolics become but psychedelic satellites of the Zavala/Rodriguez/Theodore Axis of Unbelievable.
Set-piece songs flicker in and out of focus amid acres of semi-improvisation and repeated visits to a backs-turned, stop-start precipice. Rodriguez’s jittery Tourette’s outbursts betray his jazz-vs.-Hendrix internal dialogue, laying a craggy path for Zavala’s jeans-too-tight warbling lament. Through his Astaire-on-uppers shimmy and Plantesque feral yelp, Zavala opens a portal between Rodriguez’s cinematic ambitions and the back rows, his inadvertent porno posing and bizarre bunny-hop aerobics eliciting smiles from this sellout crowd.
Few bands are as relaxed and real-time-creative live as the Mars Volta, and though their elongated whack-attacks can alienate anyone remotely this side of sobriety, when they find the flame they fan it with an unlearnable stream-of-consciousness integrity.
at House of Blues, May 14
Lostprophets are on a piss-your-pants-exciting career ledge: With an arrestingly anthemic, cathartic sophomore album (Start Something) on shelves, reams of drooling press from their native U.K. and a hefty live rep, they’re gulping a deep breath before American punters decide their fate.
Question marks over these Welsh popcore upstarts are rooted more in public perception than musical reality. Firstly, U.K. success (Lostprophets’ debut, The Fake Sound of Progress, was a surprise hit there) does not necessarily translate into stateside embrace (Stereophonics, Ms. Dynamite, anyone?). Then there’s the “boy band” tag they’ve struggled with, a legacy of the unspoken rock tradition, from Duran Duran onward, that implies good looks and artistic credibility are mutually exclusive.
Tonight the HOB is comfortably full, mostly thanks to KROQ’s championing of the single “Last Train Home.” Audience and band are as one: guys in tired trucker caps, tight T’s, loose jeans and wristbands, with gal counterparts in hipster denim, baby dolls and lower-back tats. Lostprophets immediately live up to the ultraproduced Start Something, with their six-piece ensemble and succulent backups from keyboardist Jamie Oliver allowing 3-D depth of field and cunningly arranged, borderline-RATM dynamics. Front face Ian Watkins’ passable crooning, falsetto frostings and all, compensates for his hackneyed youth-nostalgia lyrics and cliché-littered crowd cajolery.
As on Start Something, Lostprophets kick off with the notice-giving guitar call-and-response of “We Still Kill the Old Way,” ushering in superenergized takes on most of that album and dips into its predecessor, delivered with Warped Tour–approved leaping and ax slinging. The shadow of Faith No More fades live, where the Prophets’ approach owes more to emo optimism than to FNM’s dark rhythmic backbone. “Last Train Home” duly triggers mass pogoing, a hint of imminent arena status.
Lostprophets shame most of their chest-beating, tuneless peers in all departments: If this is a boy band, they’re doing a man’s job. (Paul Rogers)
ELVIN JONES, 1927–2004
About the only negative thing you can say about Elvin Jones’ ingenious, self-taught drumming is that it might encourage non-geniuses to self-educate. Technique can be learned, and Jones had plenty. But his special ability was to hear a group as a whole and maximize its power.
His rhythmic sense was magical. Having absorbed the way Sid Catlett adapted the ease of swing drums to the edgy intellectuality of bop, Jones brought the whole package into the avant-garde. Early in his career, behind an intimidating lineup of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Teddy Charles and Britt Woodman on the eerie Blue Moods (1955), you can hear him on brushes, stirring the cauldron like a warlock on “Nature Boy,” and on sticks, spreading the beat around loosely on “Alone Together” — he already understood that the human heartbeat finds its greatest strength not in steadiness (though that’s always implied) but in flexibility. In 1960, Jones was exactly the combination of pulse and release that John Coltrane had been searching for, and together they changed the world. On waltz-time excursions such as “Olé” and “My Favorite Things,” Jones expanded time by fluffing up the extremities of the beat, giving lessons in how to breathe. By 1965, his last year with Coltrane, they were a whirling dynamic unit, as the sublime duo recording “Vigil” displayed. Jones didn’t follow the path of freedom, he embodied it.
Over the ensuing decades, the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine was a touring home for fine musicians from Sonny Fortune to Nicholas Payton to Ravi Coltrane, as well as a showcase for its leader’s undiminished mastery. Despite increasing ill health, Jones was active almost up to the moment his heart failed in a New Jersey hospital; he played even when his wife, Keiko, had to support him physically onstage. He was the greatest. (Greg Burk)