At the Drive-In Rebel, Toronto ON, March 29

At the Drive-In Rebel, Toronto ON, March 29
Photo: Rick Clifford

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At the Drive-In were not built to last. Watching old performance footage of the El Paso, TX group, it's a wonder they managed to make it through individual songs, let alone a highly influential career. So the question around their latest reunion wasn't just whether they could reignite the old spark, but if they could keep it burning long enough to even complete the tour.
 
So far, so good. Having survived long enough to play make-up dates for a string of cancelled gigs, their Toronto stop last night (March 29) found the quintet firing on all cylinders as they took the stage and launched into "Arcarsenal." Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala's microphone acrobatics haven't aged a day, even if the rest of the band thrashes about a little more gingerly than they used to. Clad in black, they worked their way through a truncated version of Relationship of Command, sprinkling a few older songs, as well as a new song, in for good measure.
 
The set's first leg whipped through "Pattern Against User" and "Sleepwalk Capsules" before calming down a tad for "Metronome Arthritis," which felt picked as much for pacing as the band's (or the crowd's) fondness for the song. New track "Incurably Innocent" valiantly tried to recapture some of the unhinged chaos on which they built their name, but came up short; whether that's a product of unfamiliarity or because it's a cheap facsimile of the past remains to be seen.
 
Surprisingly, the evening hit its zenith only when the group paused the blitzkrieg. "Invalid Letter Department" allowed the group — particularly its overworked rhythm section — to calm down for a spell and really settle into a groove. Bixler-Zavala's vocals soared, and the pit exploded during the song's breakdown. "Enfilade" finally let loose guitarist Omar Rodriquez-Lopez as the band stretched out for the first time, a tact they continued later with "Napoleon Solo."
 
For all their musical competency though, there was a sense of extreme detachment between performer and audience. Bixler-Zavala's between-song banter seemed designed to mock the very concept of between-song banter, though he did insert a couple of sincere apologies. Throwing himself into the crowd on several occasions felt like a bid to break down the wall, but there was an overwhelming sense that the singer, and perhaps the entire band, were ready to move past reliving their youth.
 
Their two-song encore married the new ("Governed By Contagions") with the old ("One Armed Scissor"), laying bare the dichotomy at play within the group. The former was for them, while the latter was literally played "for all of you." With a new album due in May, At the Drive-In circa 2017 appear to be in it for the long haul. But if the band want to be more than a nostalgia act — and their sharp playing suggests they do — Bixler-Zavala and co. will have to reconcile those two forces.