By all accounts, the crowds of ticketless hopefuls started to line up around four o’clock outside of Red 7, the low-key Austin rock club that At the Drive-In had announced two days earlier as the site of their very first show in eleven years. By 10:30, half an hour before the band was due to take the stage, fans had moved to the alley out back, behind the thick, concrete soundproofing wall, hoping to catch whatever noise would bleed over. A burly APD officer stood before them, allowing them to stay, but determined to keep the peace.
This is what happens when At the Drive-In reunites in Austin, and the couple hundred available tickets sell out in seconds. This is what that band means in a lot of places, but especially – especially – down in Texas.
There’s an old line about the Velvet Underground, about how only 500 people bought their first album when it came out, but every one of them started a band. With At the Drive-In, there were only a handful of people who got to see them before their heartbreaking “make-a-genre-defining-record/start-to-blow-up/break-up-almost-immediately” cycle began. But you can’t overstate the band’s importance, especially in its home state: As a multiracial group of five guys from the depressed border town of El Paso, they inspired an entire generation of kids in hopeless-seeming places like Laredo, McAllen, Abilene – they were living proof that their rock and roll dreams could come true, that it wasn’t just for white dudes in big cities. For Latino and Latina kids in shitty Texas towns, they weren’t just the Velvet Underground – they were Jackie Robinson.
All of which is to say that, to so many people at Red 7 on Monday night, an At the Drive-In performance was hardly just another rock show. The bar was packed to fire marshal capacity with fans who said things like, “I can’t believe this is actually happening!” and who’d come to shout along every single word.
It’s lucky, then, that At the Drive-In have such shoutable choruses. Opening with the two lead-off tracks from the final LP, Relationship Of Command, the band sent an eruption of mostly 30-ish fans crushing into each other like they were nineteen years old again, screaming the words, “I must have read a thousand faces” and not pausing for breath at least until the band played “Chanbara” from the 1998 album In/Casino/Out.
When you pause for breath at a show like this – a bucket list-style reunion gig, from a band whose decade away created such an outsized myth – there’s an important question: Can they deliver? The answer? “Duh.” Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who’s been fronting the Mars Volta along with fellow ATDI refugee Omar Rodriguez-Lopez since the band’s breakup, was full of an energy and enthusiasm he hasn’t displayed onstage in years. Guitarist Jim Ward served as the Michael Anthony to the band’s Van Halen, with sharp backing vocals emphasizing the elasticity of Bixler-Zavala’s falsetto. Every song they played was a song that the crowd had waited a decade for.
Which is, ultimately, the amazing thing about this sort of reunion show. From a band that never went away, you have to sit through songs from their shitty new LP. You have to watch them get boring. At the Drive-In, though, emerged onto the Red 7 stage from a time capsule: You got older, and they stayed the same. It’s hard to imagine that even the crowd huddled in the alley, watching the show with the cops, didn’t find a lot to love about that.