Bosnian Rainbows House of Blues (Bronze Peacock Room) May 30, 2013
Ex-Mars Volta and At the Drive-In guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has entered his weird '80s phase. What that means to his listeners will vary depending on who you ask. Perhaps the comparison means that he's transitioned from a "prog dinosaur" to the sleek veneer of New Wave a la his greatest influence, Robert Fripp of King Crimson. Perhaps it means he's left Led Zeppelin and put together the Firm, like his most frequent comparison Jimmy Page.
One thing is for sure: on Thursday night, Rodriguez-Lopez's new band Bosnian Rainbows brought something new to the fervent fans who packed the Bronze Peacock Room at the House of Blues. Almost no traces remained of the members' individual pasts, reconstituted in this new world for a new generation of fans. It's different, but did it hold up to their reputations?
To the audience who showed up, by far the most intimate one he's achieved since he last left a famous band for a brand-new, entirely different project in the smallest room Rodriguez-Lopez has played in Houston in well over a decade, it didn't seem to matter. These were hardcore fans and they were ready to dance and clap and scream regardless of what tricks Bosnian Rainbows pulled.
Those fans might have felt more at home with Zorch, the opening band from Austin who recently signed with Sargent House, who play a mixture of psychedelic and math-rock more familiar to fans of the label and the Mars Volta. The flashing acid-trip imagery behind the duo hopefully satisfied any of the audience's yearning for drug trips, because Bosnian Rainbows was having none of that.
When they hit the stage, the band immediately eschewed guitar rock in favor of atmospherics. Rodriguez-Lopez cast aside his manic soloing and vintage riffing for single notes plucked, manipulated, and dragged out with effects to create a sparse, cacophony in the background while front woman Teri Gender Bender wailed in the foreground.
Keyboardist Nicci Kaspar's synthesizers washed over the room while dull blues illuminated the captive audience. But soon it all gave way to the echoing, machine-like beats of drummer Deantoni Parks, who led the band into a march of danceable pop-rock songs.
That's the other half of Bosnian Rainbows. Atmospherics dominate, but only in as much as they set the tone for the retro post-punk dance beats that is the band's stock and trade. Rodriguez-Lopez has never been able to shake his penchant for big dumb fun; even the Mars Volta's most inaccessible songs had catchy choruses and danceable rhythms. Bosnian Rainbows is no different in that respect.
But accessibility is clearly of simultaneously great and little importance to this group. With songs like "Torn Maps," they show the utmost concern to creating hooks and rhythms while at the same time taking little care to please anyone with it. With Gender Bender's hyperactive, herky jerky movement on stage, like a malfunctioning robot, and her alternatively emotionally connective and then altogether completely alien voice, Bosnian Rainbows is doing what they do for themselves first. They want to make catchy pop songs for the most selfish of reasons.
There's a thematic constant to the band however. Gender Bender's cryptic lyrics refer to men in black, men in white, and eyes in all manner of forms. The music is continuous, building and evolving to a peak and a climax, like a story being told to the audience over the course of Bosnian Rainbows' hour-long live set.
There are lulls, unfortunately. Sometimes the songs lurch along too much. Even their ballads seem sure footed, with quick steps to keep them exciting, but certain of the more beautiful pieces are pretty to hear but too dull to appreciate beyond that. Other times the transitions between Rodriguez-Lopez's rock workouts can be jarring from the more sparse synth atmospherics.
Lastly, the show itself seemed to suffer from some problem. As a member of the audience, I heard nothing wrong with their mix, but apparently there was a continuous problem with the keyboard setup, sending Rodriguez-Lopez and Kaspar into anger, exasperation, and finally hysterics when the problem had gone on so long as to be comical. Whatever was bothering them though didn't seem to make its way to those of us in the crowd and the manner of reactions from the band was more confusing than anything else.
Nevertheless, I saw them as nothing less than perfect and professional in terms of performance. As for their music itself, despite its downtime, the story did build to its inevitable finish, growing more and more exciting and more rock-oriented as the set went on. Rodriguez-Lopez was on fire when he finally began to focus on soloing and riffing as the songs shifted and took on a harder edge.
Meanwhile, Gender Bender screamed and danced the night away, grasping hands with the audience and even jumping in to surf on their heads a few times. Despite the vagueness of her narrative, it clearly reached a breaking point as her vocals became less alien and more passionate, while she harnessed an intense connection with her audience.
It was Gender Bender who spent the most time onstage thanking her fans after the show and it belied her transcendent enthusiasm for performance. Every great story needs a great lead actor or actress to elevate the show from the merely intellectually satisfying to a more visceral pleasure, and Gender Bender exudes the charisma and excitement, as well as displays the vocal chops, that make her the great star of the show.
No one can know where Rodriguez-Lopez and his new partners in crime will fall in history's estimation, much less in the scope of its members careers, but they have crafted a live show that can really hook an audience. Yeah, there are kinks, but those flaws don't hurt the overall production. In the end, the production is highly satisfying and leaves the audience wanting more.
It may have seemed like a head-for-the-ditch move for Rodriguez-Lopez to adopt a more diplomatic approach to his music and to once again restlessly deny the bands that granted him his greatest success, but ultimately it's paid off. It's a sound built for a stadium and it's hard to believe it won't end up there soon, or at least the main room at the House of Blues. More importantly, it's another hit for the band and their fans, regardless of the number or the size of the room.
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Personal Bias: Mars Volta devotee who was unsold on the new project.
The Crowd: Multicultural twentysomething hipsters, hippies, and freaks.
Overhead In the Crowd: "YOU'RE SO BEAUTIFUL!" to Gender Bender, during a particularly quiet moment. I guess it beats yelling "Freebird."
Random Notebook Dump: Surprising amount of Tracy Morgan attendees in the main room of HoB staying to see Bosnian Rainbows.