“Wouldn’t you know it?” says Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles to a sold-out crowd at the Williamsburg Hall of Music. “It’s turning into another one of those long nights I seem to keep having.”
He warns the crowd: these are the same jokes he delivered at the New Jersey show several days before. But if the jokes may be stale, their act is a blast of fresh air.
End of the tour or not, their tempo is rip-roaring from the start – a raucous and pitch-perfect rendition of Irish rockers Thin Lizzy’s anthem of return: “The Boys are Back in Town”. If the first theme of the night is homecoming, the second is gratitude. It suggests that Titus Andronicus has been building up to this moment – not winding down.
Stickles is still thrashing like a man half his age, stalking the stage, and full of bile, like he’d broken loose from somewhere. He’s swinging his guitar around in-between chords like Phil Lynott. His snarling nasal delivery is as raw and emotive as ever, suggesting the beers and cigarettes haven’t taken nearly as dire a toll as one might expect. Or maybe the pandemic-forced two years away from touring have been good for the band.
It’s the penultimate night of their “The Monitor Revisited” tour, which began on 3 November and celebrates the 10th anniversary of the vaunted Civil War-themed second album. Historical analogs about national struggle and dauntless perseverance in the midst of upheaval are a pretty effective vehicle for discussing stagnant suburbia during the depths of the Great Recession, after all. The songs are separated by long tape recordings of Abraham Lincoln’s finest orations, as well as other bits of contemporary writing, like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s famous 1831 “To the Public” editorial, which ends with the resolute declaration: “I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
Those who don’t follow setlists, and who bought tickets just to hear the 2010 album in full, are pleasantly surprised by Stickles’s early declaration: “We don’t have one classic album.” Cheers. “We got six!” More cheers. “…so far!”
“While we’re up here getting settled in, we’d thought we’d shine a light on the other five classics.”
They launch into “Fatal Flaw”, from 2015’s operatic The Most Lamentable Tragedy. The riffs are punchy and poppy enough that opening with Thin Lizzy begins to feel less like a cheeky homage and more like an epic claim-staking. It’s clear from the start that we are there to witness something special.
Though The Monitor’s lyrics of hardship and frustration describe a man a decade younger, stuck in his parents’ New Jersey basement, it’s startlingly relevant ten years later for obvious reasons: “Give me a Guinness / Give me a Keystone Light / Give me a kegger on a Friday night / Give me anything but another year in exile.”
“You’re looking at the man who invented radical vulnerability.” Stickles deadpans to wide laughter. “Rather than flee from these feelings I will run towards them, once again gaining dominion over them, for your benefit as well as my own.”
It’s not a bad distillation of artistic philosophy or as a description of the symbiosis between Titus Andronicus and their fans, who seem to feed on the rapture of angst that defines their shows. They’re probably the only act in the world – musical or otherwise – that can still make people lose their minds for the words of America’s 16th president.
Drummer Chris Wilson keeps time in style, pattering out the vaguely martial beats that drive songs partly inspired by such marching tunes as “John Brown’s Body”. Bassman R.J. Gordon has all the right moves, maintaining a stoical composure to match his methodical strumming. Axemen Liam Betson and Stickles duel in sublime fashion throughout the evening. Betson in particular shreds, and appears to exchange one natty suit for another partway through the show. It’s that kind of night.
A highlight of the evening is a dramatic, ten-minute Cheers-style barroom monologue in which Stickles waxes on his blessings while a bandmate pantomimes the “mine host” role behind the counter, giving the singer a beer: “Corona? OK. Been trying to avoid the corona the last few years, but this is probably fine.”
“I’ve been throwing back these brewskis for a long time. I admit it! Starting back when I was a teenager, growing up back in New Jersey.” Big cheer. “That’s where I learned the delights and the dangers of this golden elixir.””
The scene celebrates his mother and stepfather, who are taking in Stickles’ performance from the balcony (“I feel like they’re both watching over me right now.”) as well as everyone from industry types, to music journalists, to the fans. He even celebrates his lawyer, who got him out of some unspecified incident in New Orleans.
Stickles has everyone who’s supported him along the way share in the glory. He ebulliently thanks the newcomers to Titus Andronicus. “It’s not that bad being me. I’m a lucky guy in a lot of ways, man. I live something of a charmed life. Semi-charmed at the very least.” Another joke for rock fans by the rock fan’s rock band. The monologue slips seamlessly into a plaintive, stripped-back piano rendition of – you guessed it – “Theme from Cheers”.
The crowd brings their best as well; the shared sense of good fortune is palpable all night, and everyone belts out the Lincoln quotes and lyrics alike. Call-and-response is a jubilant fixture. Everyone knows the words.
For the closer, Stickles dons a New Jersey Devils sweater for the second and final rendition of “A More Perfect Union” – obviously the crowd favorite, and which opens with a recording of Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum address (scrupulously played twice). It’s pitched at a shout.
They encored with the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”, which inspires a fierce mosh – not the show’s first, but what I think presages an even more raucous second encore. No luck. But it’s another homage to the city the band and the revelers celebrate all night.
Raise a glass of the black stuff to the rockers from New Jersey – booze-soaked, ruminative, and wildly glad to be alive.