Let’s get this out of the way first: when At the Drive-In dissolved in 2001, it split into two groups. Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez formed The Mars Volta. Singer/guitarist Jim Ward, drummer Tony Hajjar, and bassist Paul Hinojos formed Sparta. The Mars Volta went on to weirdness and Grammy success. Sparta stayed comfortably in the realm of the post-hardcore for which At the Drive-In were known. Since At the Drive-In’s reformation, Ward is the last stalwart who has not rejoined his former band, reactivating Sparta for this year’s tour, their first in six years, which made its way to Barracuda in Austin, Texas on Thursday, February 15. Got it?
Okay, the elephant in the room out of the way, Sparta may or may not ever escape the shadow of front man Ward’s former band, or his ex-bandmates. This new Sparta, featuring founding Spartan bassist Matt Miller, guitarist Gabriel Gonzalez, and Austin native drummer Cully Symington, is every bit as capable of rocking the house as the original one, but of course longtime fans will miss the presence of more At the Drive-In members.
Ward is comfortable, though. In a mid-show speech, he made his intentions clear. “I don’t wanna be in a bus or a truck and playing arenas…I wanna be here in a small club with you guys right up here,” he said. This is contentment to Ward. This is comfort food for the soul. These days, with his businesses in his hometown of El Paso, Ward doesn’t want to be away from home for years on end, and if he is away, he wants to be playing to 500 sweaty fans in a dive bar, not 20,000 drug-addled kids at Coachella who don’t know a lick of his music or a bit of his background.
That’s a fair and admirable sentiment, and the Austin audience returned it to him. This was the first time Sparta played in Austin since 2012, just after he finished At the Drive-In’s initial reunion run, which incidentally played the Barracuda stage when it was Red 7 for their first show back. Fans were clearly enamored with the long desired return of Ward and his music. Hits like “Cut Your Ribbon” and “Breaking the Broken” inspired mass singalongs and clapalong sections. Ward, awkward as ever on stage, but clearly adoring the outpouring of love, immersed himself in the crowd multiple times, singing with the audience any time he got a chance.
Even with six years off the road, Ward and his newly assembled band hasn’t lost a step. Ward himself admitted to messing up lyrics, but his yips and yelps were in fine form. His singing was never great from a technical standpoint, but the heart in his screams was always evident. It was a sound many had missed greatly.
Though Austin is at least eight hours from El Paso by car, it must also not be underestimated how much of a homecoming show this was. Ward referenced his hometown countless times, and the crowd waved the banner along with him. Audience members could be heard screaming various El Paso references back to him, and it started to become clear just how many El Paso ex-pats littered the audience. Hell, half the people there probably know Ward. It made for a very intimate evening, as though the show really were taking place in that small border town.
It’s obvious where fans stand. Just about everyone that cares about any of this wishes Ward was playing alongside his comrades in At the Drive-In. But respecting that Ward would rather be playing with Sparta in a venue like Barracuda, fans are perfectly happy to sing along and dance with Ward to his own songs. The love will always be there for both Ward and Sparta, no matter where he decides to take his musical talents.