Sunday, May 1, 2011

Live Review - Titus Andronicus @ Music Hall of Williamsburg

Titus Andronicus Live at Music Hall of Williamsburg
By Bill Reese*

Patrick Stickles, front man of New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus, does his own sound checks. At a quarter to 11 on Saturday night at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, the lanky, bearded singer walked nonchalantly onstage to the cheers of his supporters and tuned his guitar. His band are coming off a whirlwind year which saw the release of their critically-acclaimed sophomore record The Monitor, and a continental tour, sometimes in support of acts such as The Pogues. They’re big enough that they don’t need to do their own sound checks, or sell their own merch, but either they don’t know that, or they just don’t care.

That’s simply who Titus Andronicus is. They’re a punk band who write piano ballads; a hardcore group who write songs about The Civil War; a band who roll through their sets with both the effortlessness of experienced veterans and the passion and fire of a band who still have something—if not everything—to prove. They’re a band from New Jersey who is more Bleecker Street than E Street, yet the similarities are as unexpected as they are uncanny.

The five piece outfit strolled onstage just after 11 and lightly strummed the intro to “No Future: Part Three…” with Stickles’ vocals floating softly above the guitars for a minute before the full band dropped in. The sound was the kind of hard-rock thumping that is generally associated with big-budget pyrotechnic arena rock, and the crowd took to it no differently, immediately turning the front of the sold-out venue into a swollen, thrashing pit.

Even though the Brooklyn gig was the last show in Titus’ long tour, Stickles looked anything but worn out. He attacked the microphone in “Richard III,” with clouds of breath and spit firing out from his mouth on each consonant. He wore an oversized beige T-shirt—a generic top with a pocket over the left breast—that was completely soaked four or five songs in. In bridges or solos he shook and flailed with his guitar as an American flag bandanna draped from his strap. His energy was matched by Titus guitarist Amy Klein who played both lead and rhythm guitar, as well as an electric violin. She bopped around stage all show, bouncing in unison with the throngs of fans at the foot of the stage, then propping her leg up on the vocal monitors like Captain Morgan, shaking her long, curly hair in time with the music.

The set focused more on The Monitor, but the early set gave time to several tracks from their debut An Airing of Grievances, especially crowd-pleasers “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ” and the self-titled song “Titus Andronicus,” which allowed Stickles to take off his guitar and play keyboard, as well as scamper about the stage, microphone cord wrapped around his fist like a later-day Guy Picciotto.

Even when they slowed things down on the heartfelt ballad “To Old Friends and New,” the band still kept a hard, sharp edge. The song’s soft-loud dynamic was made even more drastic, as verses with Stickles’ subdued vocals over piano, were followed up by high-decibel choruses. The crowd soaked up the bittersweet gem as much as they’d reveled in the high-octane songs earlier in the set. How many concerts feature both a rip-roaring mosh pit and an arm-in-arm swaying circle a la We Are the World?

They followed up the ballad with The Monitor’s most anthemic track “A More Perfect Union”—a seven-minute epic that directly quotes President Abraham Lincoln, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It name drops New Jersey roads, towns and minor league sports teams, and each reference brought out the inner Jersey from the closeted Garden Staters in attendance. “A More Perfect Union” led into its sister track “Titus Andronicus Forever,” whose only lyrics are “The enemy is everywhere,” repeated ad nauseaum. The band jammed out on the folk/country/punk riff while delighted, elated fans beat the living hell out of each other before the stage.

Rather than close the show with a rousing punk standard. The band decided to play all four punk standards they knew. In the time it took them to play the entirety of “A More Perfect Union,” they played 7 Seconds’ “Racism Sucks,” Sham 69’s “If the Kids are United,” The Ramones “Swallow My Pride,” and Amy Klein took lead vocals on a blistering rendition of XRay Spex’ “Bondage.” Amid the punk suite, a somewhat winded Stickles remarked that playing just one of these standards each night was taxing—let alone all four of them. The group closed with The Monitor’s “Four Score and Seven,” an eight-minute rocker that summed up the band’s current dynamic—crafty, artful melodic rock juxtaposed with loud, aggressive hardcore and punk.

Was this what it felt like walking out of an E Street Band gig at The Bottom Line in early 1975? Titus Andronicus, like that other band from New Jersey, are at that crucial early point in their career where they have made their most ambitious record and can either take their talents to soaring new heights or be crushed by the music press that inflates the egos of up-and-coming bands, only to pop the balloon and watch it careen across the room. The way Titus Andronicus hold themselves, it’s a wonder if they’re truly aware just how brilliant they really are. They are young, talented, incredibly smart, unbelievably driven and absolutely unwilling to compromise their sound—not even for roadies setting up their gear. This could be the best young band in America, even if most of America isn’t ready for them yet. Perhaps with all the sham and drudgery of the music industry, it’s better that way. The enemy, as Stickles would sing, is everywhere.

*Bill Reese is a corresponding writer for Officially A Yuppie. His past articles include "Grohl," last month's Underrated Classic on REM's New Adventures in Hi-Fi and the feature "From the Muddy Banks of the Gowanas - How Brooklyn is the New Seattle."