As At The Drive-In prepare to make their return to the UK and Ireland for the first time since announcing their reunion, longtime fan Rob Mair explains why he won’t be attending this weekends shows in Dublin and London and why the shows won’t be memorable as during their first run.
Nostalgia’s a funny thing…
I have no qualms about shelling out for a festival ticket just to see one of my favourite bands play one of my favourite records (The Get Up Kids playing ‘Something to Write Home About’, since you asked), or travelling to another country largely to watch one of my favourite live acts perform for the first time in seven years (As Friends Rust, FYI). Hell, The Weakerthans have only been finished six months, but I’d still take out a loan, buy a plane ticket and get the heck out to Winnipeg faster than you can say ‘Left and Leaving’ should they announce a reunion.
So why am I so utterly unfussed with At The Drive-In’s latest reunion?
It’s remarkable how complicated your relationship with music can be at times. For the record, I’m a big fan of At The Drive-In, but I won’t be attending their forthcoming shows. It has nothing to do with the venue, or with the ticket price – I paid good money to finally see The Replacements last year at the Roundhouse and it was a magical, albeit drunken, night (nostalgia, eh…)
It’s more to do with the fear of them not being as good as previous times I’d seen then. In fact, I skipped their previous reformation shows for a similar reason and, following an indifferent reception, I’d say it’s a decision that was vindicated.
In truth, At The Drive-In probably weren’t even that bad, it’s just that at their peak – and for me, their peak is the run-up to the release of ‘Relationship of Command’ – they were untouchable; probably one of the best live acts I’d ever seen.
Now, some context. When I saw them first play it was at Southampton’s Joiners in early 2000, and it was a proper event. My brother came across from Plymouth and friends from college headed down from the Midlands for the weekend. ‘In/Casino/Out’ was a staple in our sixth form common room and the chance to see them in a small, intimate venue, on a Friday was just too much to turn down.
At The Drive-In had been in the studio working on their follow-up to ‘In/Casino/Out’ (still their best album, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise) with producer Ross Robinson, who’d made his name working with numerous metal acts, while ATD-I themselves had just got off tour in the States with Rage Against The Machine. I know this, because it was plastered all over the gig’s flyer. It also led to a wildly diverse audience, filled with curious metalheads and nerdy emo boys. None of us would leave disappointed. It remains a high watermark in announcing yourself to the world. If you’ve never been to Joiners, its stage struggles to fit three people on, let alone four. Now imagine five people crammed on it, one of which is a whirling dervish; a blur of limbs, swinging microphones and crazy dancing. It was brilliant, thrilling chaos.
They weren’t one-trick ponies, either. In fact, they’d be just as good at the Underworld, while their appearance at Reading Festival, in a mid-afternoon slot on the smallest stage (back when Reading was just three stages and a comedy tent) was the stuff of legend.
But as they grew, perhaps knackered due to the constant demands to put on a show, things changed. At least that’s my perception. It could be that by the time I saw them again, I knew what to expect and that thrilling edge had been dulled. It could be that I didn’t connect with ‘Relationship of Command’ as much as ‘In/Casino/Out’, leaving me left out of the At The Drive-In juggernaut.
And, for a band that played on the edge, the divisions within the group became a distracting sideshow, adding unneeded drama to the live shows. Indeed, just prior to this current set of shows, guitarist Jim Ward once again stepped down from the band, replaced by his Sparta charge Keeley Davis.
My big concern is that I’m just not sure you can evoke the same energy and fission once it has dissipated. For 18 months, it felt like At The Drive-In were unstoppable, yet now, 16 years after this brief moment in time, how can band members, comfortable with what they’ve achieved in world music, recapture the hunger they displayed on Joiners’ tiny stage?
And I think that’s the crux of my issue. The Get Up Kids never had such a level of intensity to their performance; they provide a chance to sing classic songs, arm-in-arm with complete strangers – which is exactly what happened at Hevy, while As Friends Rust still encourage barrel-loads of stage diving and throw the mic out liberally and freely. There’s nothing these bands need to recapture. They show up, hit the spot and the crowd leaves happy. At The Drive-in need to evoke the same passion they displayed as wiry, desperate and passionate kids. It’s a completely different challenge and one much harder to win.
So, while plenty of people will no doubt be swept up with seeing At The Drive-In again – or even for the first time – this is one nostalgia trip I’m happy to keep in my head.
As a caveat, I genuinely hope they’re great. I’d much rather hear from excited people about how they smashed it, rather than people leaving disappointed. I’m also intrigued by the thought of new material. I’m fascinated by what At The Drive-In Version 2016 might sound like, how the experiences of the last 16 years have shaped them as a collective. This means that maybe, by 2017, At The Drive-In will no longer be a nostalgia trip for me, but a real, going concern I can get excited about.
Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)