Live: Titus Andronicus @ Lark Hall, 11/06/2021
Oh I never wanted to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey
‘Cuz tramps like us, baby we were born to die
Back in 2010, when I first heard those closing lines of the first verse of the opening track The Monitor, I immediately knew the sophomore album by New Jersey punk rockers Titus Andronicus was something very special. It wasn’t even two minutes into the hour-plus long concept album, but I was sure of it. Eleven years on, history has borne that impression out. Widely regarded as one of the best albums of the decade, the album and its anthemic, angsty tracks are memorized and internalized by the band’s fans everywhere, including last night at Lark Hall. This is not a band people lightly know. You either don’t know them at all, or you scream along with their songs like it was your own life story.
It’s for this reason the band decided to revisit that career highpoint with this tour, playing that album in its entirety from start to finish. Leader and founder Patrick Stickles acknowledged this after opening with a cover of “Boys are Back in Town”. “We’ll do what everybody came here for, but you don’t mind if we have a little fun first?”, he said, before launching into a half dozen or so songs from other parts of their catalog. There is an uneasy tension here. It’s clear Stickles is proud of the album and appreciative of the acclaim. It’s equally clear that Stickles is not a man who wants to be boxed in. “We all know lots of bands have one classic album. But we have six of them.” And he mostly meant it.
While their other albums may not quite rise to the level of The Monitor as a whole, this opening salvo showcased songs that were every bit as strong on an individual basis. 2015’s “Dimed Out” has a simplicity that only gets better with each listen, and is particularly bruising live. The even more recent “Tumult Around the World” stylistically evoked The Who in its delivery, and closed out the buffet portion of the night on a particularly high point. The band – Stickles on vocals and guitar, guitarist Liam Betson, bassist R.J. Gordon, and drummer Chris Wilson – was loose and having fun.
Now they turned to the matter at hand, and launched into The Monitor’s first track “A More Perfect Union”. When they reached the end of the aforementioned first verse, it was 2010 all over again. But louder, more raw, more urgent. This is a band that, for all their studio highs, is meant to be seen live. The album’s material is grandiose – lots of refrains that lend themselves to cathartic (if slightly drunken) singalongs, and grand sweeping crescendos interspersed with quick, punk punches to the gut. Betson (who, aside from Stickles is the only one to have played on the album itself) is particularly adept at projecting the recurring “themes” of the album, and has a sound that is uniquely identifiable as his own.
They rolled powerfully through the rest of the album. “Titus Andronicus Forever”, with its chorus of “the enemy is everywhere” quickly whipped the crowd into a semi-frenzy. The renditions of the songs were faithful, but not slavish or fussy. This is still a punk band from New Jersey, and they won’t let you forget that. The band easily took its cues (when needed) from Stickles, and the tight rhythm section never missed on the stops and starts. Wilson in particular deserves credit for carrying a lot of weight here. “A Pot in Which to Piss” particularly resonated with the audience, deservedly so.
For the introspective, drunken “Theme from Cheers”, Stickles went theatrical. A “bar” was set up on the side of the stage, and he performed it solo as an extended croon (mixed with plenty of barrom banter), pint of Guinness in hand for the duration. Though effective and entertaining, I couldn’t help but ponder the evolution of Stickles. Would the younger Stickles, who first played Albany at Valentine’s, ever have done something this “showy”? Is it still punk? Does that even matter?
Any ponderous questions quickly went out the window as “…and Ever” roared back the theme of “the enemy is everywhere” and led into the inevitable, absurdly powerful album closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads”. This song is one of the great rock songs ever, full stop. And as great a song as it is on its own, it’s that much more powerful as the closer to the concept album. The uncomfortable, scathing lyrics. The shrieking guitar crescendos, reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine. The emotional musical descent into the wounded plaintive cry of “Please don’t ever leave” repeated, over and over. Powerful stuff, and the band absolutely nailed it.
They chose to close out their set by playing the album opener “A More Perfect Union” again. I can’t explain why this worked, but it did. The song wasn’t played fundamentally any differently than the first time they played it. But for some reason, after being taken on the emotional ride that is The Monitor, it somehow felt like it meant something different. More hopeful, perhaps. Which may have been the point.
The ecstatic crowd was going nowhere, and after a brief break, the band returned for a rousing encore of “Titus Andronicus” from their debut album.
Opening for Titus Andronicus was Madison, Wisconsin’s Disq. An amiable five piece, they played a likeable, if not overly memorable set to a generally receptive audience. They successfully weave interesting sound textures while they play. A young band deservedly on the rise, they may need only some more memorable songs to get to the next level.