There he was, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, standing against the wall watching opening act Dot Hacker like he was a paying ticketholder, unmistakable with his signature 'fro and unmissable to anyone walking to and from the bathroom. And there he was again, after his new band Zavalaz' live debut, talking and taking pictures with fans — the irony of which we'll address in a bit.
Perhaps the former singer of seminal post-hardcore band At the Drive In and alt-prog outfit Mars Volta would have been less comfortable — or more hassled — mixing it up outside the backstage area in another city. But Las Vegas and host venue Artifice provided Bixler-Zavala and his bandmates a low-key way to start both its West Coast club tour and its concert career — two milestones lost among most of the attendees this writer spoke with at last night's Zavalaz gig.
Many of those same audience members expected to not only hear the sort of spastic, often hard-charged sounds Bixler-Zavala is associated with due to his previous bands, but witness an equally fitful physical performance by the singer, renowned for working a stage and microphone like someone who has unintentionally walked through a bee swarm. But they encountered neither of those phenomena. Instead, the 10 numbers that introduced Zavalaz to Las Vegas took on a mostly midtempo and strummy demeanor, calling upon the musicians' classic rock influences — think the SoCal AM radio and NorCal folk-rock of the 1970s. And Bixler-Zavalas remained behind a microphone stand playing guitar — a duty that has eluded the longtime frontman for a long time — concentrating far more on the execution of the music rather than its projection.
Some in the front were focused solely on the band, no doubt curious how Bixler-Zavala would redefine himself now without his longtime musical partner, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, a brilliant guitar player and the primary visionary for both ATDI and Mars Volta — the former band having reunited for a few gigs last year, and the latter effectually dissolved when his exasperated singer departed in January. Those fans saw an emerging balladeer. And some seemed bored, expecting some musical overlap with either ATDI or Mars Volta, but hearing very little.
To judge the performance on that anticipation is hardly fair to the Bixler-Zavala, and perhaps even more unfair to his four bandmates. They played ably and without visible first-gig jitters, especially Bixler-Zavala, who strummed away during the entire performance without missing a note or sacrificing necessary vocal dynamics. In fact, he sounded in much better voice on Friday than he did during ATDI's Coachella reunion last year. As a whole, the band harmonized impressively, and made the setting feel even more intimate.
That said, Bixler-Zavala's songs occasionally relied too heavily on the Fleetwood Mac/Crosby Stills & Nash template. And while many of the numbers were melodic, they weren't tuneful or adventurous enough to consistently engage.
Now that Bixler-Zavala has made his musical statement and asserted his musical independence — and successfully done both onstage — he should zero in on creativity and craft, and evolve his new band so it may stand out as a unique, penetrating force worthy of both widespread attention and his legacy.
Now, the photo issue: I can almost understand the singer not wanting to be distracted or even misrepresented by phone-photographers during his band's first-ever gig. But the no video/recordings/photo rule, stressed by both him and several signs, also deputized security — by far the most I've ever seen at Artifice — to threaten those in the crowd simply checking their text messages. Guards were seen walking various audience members to the venue's exits at various points — some were allowed back in — throughout the show, even during Dot Hacker's set, and this overzealous vigilance made for a very unwelcome, uncomfortable atmosphere. This is a rock 'n' roll show at a bar, not a movie screening or Smith Center performance. New rule for those performers twitchy about a random photo leaking: Phones up and/or flashing might warrant a warning, but phones down should remain none of your or your crew's business.