On April 27th, 1861, 150 years before the night of Titus Andronicus’ recent show at the venerable Black Cat in Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in response to escalating violence in the area surrounding the nation’s capital. Patrick Stickles, frontman for the rising New Jersey punk band, was almost certainly aware of that anniversary; Titus Andronicus’s most recent record, The Monitor (2010), turned the Civil War into a metaphor for the turmoil of modern suburban angst and gained the band legions of new followers in the process. Call it “literate” rock, if you must — but The Decemberists, these guys (and girl) ain’t.
The Decemberists, by the way, are also a great live band. They’re just playing to another side of the room. Titus Andronicus has been filling bigger and bigger venues on their recent tours (Stickles told the Black Cat crowd that the April 27th show was their biggest headlining performance to date), but they have the uncanny ability to make a mid-sized club seem like a basement in New Jersey. Yes, in any other context, that would be an insult worthy of this writer’s lifelong banishment from the Black Cat. Point being — Titus had the crowd in the most famously stoic city in the country dancing, pogo-ing, embracing, and — above all — sweating. Stickles began the set in classic hardcore fashion, asking the crowd to support one another, be safe, and have fun together. Ian MacKaye would’ve been proud (openers Double Dagger did their DC homework too, with vocalist Nolen Strals doing his best pre-Fugazi MacKaye impression all night).
Stickles kicked things off by himself, strumming the opening chords to “No Future Part Three”, a navel-gazing lament that starts slow before building to a pitch, transforming the refrain, “You will always be a loser!”, into a rallying cry. The band dug into their debut LP, The Airing of Grievances (2008), for a volley of songs, the highlight of which was “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ”, its hardcore-by-way-of-Irish-jig breakdown allowing Stickles a chance to show off his classic rock chops. The only new track of the night showed a more plaintive Titus Andronicus, as well as further proof that they’ve studied St. Springsteen quite thoroughly.
“To Old Friends and New” segued the set into its second half, which focused on The Monitor. That song — as usual — suffered live without a female counterpoint for Stickles’s verses. Guitarist Amy Klein can sing well enough, as she proved during the band’s cover of X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” (in memoriam to punk heroine Poly Styrene), so why not have her cover the role? It barely mattered, anyway, once the band careened into “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, the fourteen-minute Monitor closer. Stickles belted out the lyrics — venomous and full of bile — as if he were debuting the track there on the stage. That’s Titus Andronicus’s not-so-secret weapon, in the end: the band’s unbridled enthusiasm and energy, their boundless belief in what they’re doing up there. It’s contagious. By the time the band was coaxed out by the crowd for a rare encore — another cover, Sham 69’s “If the Kids Are United” — they could’ve played a medley of John Denver songs and not lost a single ear in the crowd. That takes something special.
No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future
My Time Outside the Womb
Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ
Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’
To Old Friends and New
The Battle of Hampton Roads
A More Perfect Union / Titus Andronicus Forever
Oh Bondage, Up Yours! (X-Ray Spex cover)
Four Score and Seven
If the Kids Are United (Sham 69 cover)