Live Review: The Mars Volta – The Tivoli – 18th January 2010

Review: Lana Harris

The Mars Volta   The Tivoli is filling with fans and the ambient strains of lounge jazz. Bodies crowd the railings upstairs first, spectators safe behind the iron and wood. As more people push through the doors the floor packs out, the main crowds are drawn towards the stage, towards the backdrop of snake and other eyes, wings and amorphous canine face shapes, lit by blasts of ketchup red from above. Excited chatter now drowns out the background melodies, until The Mars Volta hit the stage.

They make a symphonic entrance; amongst swelling sounds each of the six band members (drums, percussion/synthesisers, bass, keyboards, guitar, and vocals) take their time to position themselves and their instruments just so. The waiting, the surging sound, the air of expectation all feed into an arc of tension that is annihilated by the opening sounds of ‘Cotopaxi’. The energy of the song ripples through the crowd, starting heads rocking and hips swaying – until The Mars Volta hit a key change and the beat becomes impossible to dance to. Then eyes follow vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala around the stage. The tempo slows; an atmospheric darkness replaces the bright spot lights. Yowling into the microphone, Bixler-Zavala leads the crowd down the rabbit hole before handing the reins to Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, who starts flinging guitar solos about while Bixler-Zavala twirls and tames his microphone cord like it’s a naughty snake, dipping and peaking and then slammed to the floor by the vocal master. The trance ends with a climatic squeal of feedback and a return to 4/4 time, and the crowd goes wild.

The combination of rock interwoven with traditional Latin music as well as more complex musical forms that require the six (and what used to be eight) band members are what makes The Mars Volta. They can write great riffs, but the drawcard is then adding the spirit and freedom of jazz to the energy and percussion tools of South America, twisting these through time signatures most people don’t know even exist, and presenting the result dark and heavy and full, even (especially) when slower and unstructured. In between the surface walk of recognisable riffs and predictable beats, The Mars Volta drags the audience into unexplored, unknowable holes where anything could spring out. The lighting at the show compliments the dichotomy, dimming in the troughs and bright and coloured when we explode out the other side into powerful, tight riffs and percussion.


The crowd loves the vocal experiments in the interludes, yelling their appreciation into the otherwise quiet awe and standstill that fills the room during the songs which end up with massively extended, improvised middles. Bixler-Zavala is mesmerising in these pieces, a marionette to what he feels inside. Arms waving like serpents, hips dragging in slow circles, head rolling and eyes shut; Bixler-Zavala is the personification of psilocybin. It’s hard to draw your eyes from his performance and you don’t want to. During the two full hours The Mars Volta is on stage Bixler-Zavala always commands attention and the stage set up makes it clear that himself and guitarist Rodriguez-Lopez are the outlets for the forces conjured; the other musicians well used and needed, but accomplices to their alchemy.

The Mars Volta gig was a voyeuristic experience, enhanced by the intimate, ornate insides of the Tivoli, which has several shadowy nooks that still offer an uninterrupted view of the stage. You can even watch from the bar through window spaces. So it felt private as we watched the complete immersion of Bixler-Zavala’s being in the music, the flood escaping not just from his mouth but from his arms, his head, his hips; uninhibited and lost in a way that most people could only succumb to when they thought no one was watching. And The Mars Volta acts like the crowd isn’t there: there are no song announcements, greetings, or recognition for the other musicians sharing the stage. The only hint they were aware of their audience was a shower of ice flung across the tightly packed crowd in front of the stage halfway through the set, a brief acknowledgement that they had noticed, and maybe were even sympathetic to, the ardour they were igniting in the crowd. And as the lights came on and people drifted into the street, the still warm night air did about as much as that quick sprinkle of ice to cool passionate after show exultations.

The Mars Volta – The Tivoli – 18th January 2010

The Mars VoltaThe Mars Volta is available from iTunes