Titus Andronicus Vs. Hayden Higgins, Round One

Sometimes you learn about a new band from a friend’s radio show or a girlfriend’s mixtape. Sometimes you see them open for someone you already know and you’re instantly hooked. Most of the time it’s somehow a communal process.

The first time I heard Titus Andronicus, though, I was sitting by myself in Davidson College’s Sloan Music Library, January 2010. It was snarlingly cold, snowing outside and I was chilled to the bone. I was wasting time catching up on new music–I’d basically been out of the country since the prior June, and so totally missed The Monitor, Titus Andronicus’ sprawlingly ambitious sophomore album. Stumbling upon an online recommendation, I listened to the album’s first track, “A More Perfect Union”–then I listened to it twice more, catching a new reference and a new riff every time. It’s about the Civil War and highways and homesickness. It’s got an Abe Lincoln speech and turns the Battle Cry of Freedom into a life-affirming chant. The song has multiple sections, ambition to match Bruce Springsteen, and arena-ready electric guitars. Suffice to say that when I stood up I was warm, and I was definitely back in America.

Titus Andronicus, basically

*     *     *     *     *

Two years later, it was late November 2012, and I found myself happily in the possession of one ticket to see Titus Andronicus, now firmly established as critical darlings and legendary live performers. Local Business, Titus Andronicus’ third album, dropped October 22, to modest acclaim; neither the album nor the critical response it engendered were quite as rancorous. The album features fewer instruments and shorter songs, making it more restrained and focused than The Monitor and certainly cleaner-sounding than The Airing of Grievances. Nonetheless, the DIY focus and us-against-them mentality is present as ever, with headman Patrick Stickles taking the album launch as opportunity to inveigh against economic inequality.

From the music video to “In A Big City”

I left my San Francisco workplace to head to the show. Crushed by the commute hours masses, I couldn’t help but think of my favorite song from the new album, “In A Big City,” which explores the interzone between the excitement of the big city (“some of my dreams are coming true”) and its dehumanizing elements (“It’s easy turning me on/I’m nearly a robot”). Though I’d asked around plenty, most everyone had turned down any offer to join me on my description of Titus Andronicus as ‘punk’–apparently a dirty word amongst my cohort. Nonetheless, it felt fitting to be headed to the show alone–alone, as I had discovered Titus Andronicus, and as alone as Stickles’ narrator often seems. It was a bit of a rite of passage; I had never been to the Great American Music Hall, the show’s venue, which was supposed to be in a sketchy neighborhood. I figured braving the Tenderloin was the next step in my transfer from suburban neophyte to seasoned San Franciscan.

Despite my worries, I got to the venue just fine. In fact, I severely underestimated how long it would take for me to get there, and ended up being one of the first people in the door. The GAMH isn’t a large venue, but they do have excellent beers on tap, so I had a Uinta Black Lager and waited. When that was drained, I began to pace the floor; I think one guy thought I was on drugs and asked if I was okay. In fact, I was just thinking, and had been walking in circles almost without realizing it.

When I sat down, I saw that Stickles had taken his place behind the merch table. I had already been considering buying a Titus t-shirt; now seemed to be the time. The politics of such a transaction seemed bizarrely complex to me as I headed over to say hi and buy the shirt. In today’s world, with traditional revenue structures falling apart, bands increasingly rely on merch to make money. The piece on Grizzly Bear’s finances came to mind. I even noted that the shirt was American Apparel (on one hand, super comfy; on another, serious labor allegations).

Ed Droste, in the Grizzly Bear piece, notes that the band is “essentially a risky small business” for them. Stickles draws an explicit parallel between bands and small businesses both in interviews and with the title of the new album. With his frequently used hashtag #crushcapitalism, Stickles isn’t exactly the spokesman you’d expect for the power of the market. But DIY has strong affinities with a certain strain of capitalism–a highly ethical one, to be sure, but one still devoted to hard work and making money. Fugazi may have restricted their business methods, but they were still dedicated to moving inventory. In this light, Titus Andronicus become the perfect example of what capitalism–and America–can be. I bought the shirt. 

*     *     *     *     *

There were two openers that night, and both were kind of weird. Creative Adult I will remember mainly because their drummer was dressed as if he had just come from 7th grade gym class and because their singer now shares the award with Suckers for drunkest opener I’ve ever seen (the Suckers singer that night was wearing a dog-themed Snuggie and had penises drawn all over his face, so that says something). Support for hometown heroes Ceremony was strong. I had heard and liked some of their work–fairly hard and fast punk–but found their live presence bizarre. In my mind, punk stands opposite to prog, disdaining showmanship and solos, but Ceremony’s guitarists clearly relished the opportunity to show off their classic-rock moves, from high-kicking to windmilling.

In the interim between Ceremony and Titus Andronicus it became apparent that the crowd was nervous. People were antsy, milling towards the front and fidgeting around. The feeling of immense and feverish expectation was in the air as crowd members anxiously sized one another and the band up, worried for their vision of the night. I talked with a group who gushed over Amy Klein, a former band member who had left to found Permanent Wave, a national feminist collective. We were all pretty amped.

Just like that, though the concert started–I was near the front–and the next thing I knew the guy I’d been talking about BART schedules with five minutes ago was stage-diving onto my face.

The band ripped right into the righteous, rolling stomp-rock opener of their new album, “Ecce Homo,” with its now-infamous lines, “Okay I think by now we’ve established/Everything is inherently worthless.” The nightlong singalong began in earnest as arms flailed in the night’s first mosh pit.

On the face of it these words seem pessimistic, but for the crowd they were clearly a liberation soundtrack: an embrace of making your own way in a harsh world, but your own way nonetheless. The line rang especially true for me–it’s an idea I’ve turned over in my head plenty. The world has no objective, inherent, assigned purpose, and at first that’s not just scary, it’s terrifying. It means we’re alone with no apparent direction. But it also means we’re free to make our own lives, to find our own way. This is a band that named an entire song “Albert Camus,” so it’s clear they’re literate with the philosophical ramifications of existential nihilism. But in that immediate moment, with bodies flying and voices soaring, it wasn’t just a philosophical idea, but a physical reality.

The band hardly stopped as they swung right through the rest of “Ecce Homo” and on to “Hot Deuce on Silver Platter.” The title of that song should tell you all you need to know about the band’s sense of humor (if you’re not convinced, check out Stickles’ facial expressions covering Lana del Rey at his parent’s house). When Stickles’ quarter-inch got wrapped around an amp after a particularly raucous rendition of “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus,” he mumbled into the mic, “damn this thing is long.” Gripped by some terrible frat-boy impulse I called out, “that’s what she said.” Stickles chuckled and mugged, “hey, where’s the funny guy?” before launching into “Titus Andronicus,” the rambling centerpiece of Grievances with a wailing harmonica riff.

I have to mention the moshing. At this point in the show it was clear it wasn’t going to let up. It was really positive moshing–Andrew W.K. would have been proud. While intensely physical, there were no elbows or punches. I was particularly impressed, really, with the abandon that some of the smaller people exhibited. It was an intensely communal way to experience the music, and the anthropology major in me was fascinated with the parallels I was starting to see behind this practice and other, more exotically-situated rituals. For “In a Big City,” the crowd swayed and jumped to the call of dreams coming true, and for the solo to “Four Score and Seven” Stickles responded by leaning into the crowd, his guitar strings centimeters from a guy who was (weirdly, I guess) trying to lick them. Most powerfully, I’ve rarely felt such a space to be as respectful as that one felt, a credit to the crowd and the band.

Throughout the show, Stickles was flanked by a bassist and two other guitarists, who all took turns on lead, with a drummer in back who eschewed fancy fills for an insistent and constant beat. While the lack of further instrumentation–and the absence of Amy’s complementary vocals–was apparent on “To Old Friends and New,” it was obvious that the current iteration of the band, and the songs they brought in tow, were meant for touring. (Reminds me of Ian MacKaye’s point that bands should make records so that they can tour, and not the other way around.)

Throughout the show, Stickles’ verbal assault remained relentless, and it was hard to understand how his small body could hold as much breath as it did; like Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, he favors full-sentence lyrics, but he tends to spit rather than coo his. Almost every song seemed to climax to a raucous chant, whether “yr life is over” in “Titus Andronicus,” “it’s us against them” in “Four Score and Seven,” “the enemy is everywhere” in “Titus Andronicus Forever,” “you will always be a loser” in “No Future Part Three,” or the eponymous line from “My Eating Disorder.” Simple words mean it’s easier to focus on putting your heart into it as you’re shouting along.

Throughout Stickles and the band aim for a style that is literate but not self-righteous, confessional but not moping. Bright Eyes might be a comparison, if they were crossed with the Replacements, but Bright Eyes usually sound ready to renounce the world as damned, not redeem it, and Oberst’s flask on the train seems a little bit different than Titus’ kegger on a Friday night.  There is a constant return to community as an antidote to self-loathing–it’s “let’s get fucked” in “Theme from Cheers”–and an overall embrace of earnestness that is a breath of fresh air. In this regard Titus Andronicus seems like a perfect antidote to the problem diagnosed by NYT Stone article “How To Live Without Irony,” which lambastes hipsters for never meaning what they say. Au contraire–Titus wear their emotions pretty bluntly on their sleeves, and invite everyone they know and some they don’t to share in them.

The Replacements knew something about that (and they would have been down for that Keystone Light, too). The godfathers of drunk-punk were honored through a hackneyed cover of “Bastards of Young,” a request for which was shouted out at some point. Their Jersey roots were similarly honored with an absolutely jubilant medley of “Do You Love Me?/Twist and Shout,” a combo which Bruce Springsteen frequently ended shows with during the 80s. These covers were followed by an upbeat take on “(I Am) The Electric Man,” bringing out that songs’ fifties-swing roots.

There I was, sweaty from moshing, beer spilled all over my cords, and worried that I’d miss the final train back to the East Bay, when they launched into the 14-minute epic “Battle of Hampton Roads,” which I don’t need to say much more about than except that it has a bagpipe solo. We jumped up and down and it was impossible whether to say we listening to the soundtrack of apocalypse or salvation. The sound rose and fell like a heaving beast that wouldn’t die, until it was hard to say whether a section could be called a crescendo if it was followed by another crescendo. Though there wasn’t a bagpipe around, the guitars did well enough. The bombast might have been too much in another context, but we had followed the band on the journey this far already–there was no going back. When it was over, I headed straight out. I knew there wouldn’t be an encore–Titus Andronicus had already given it their all.

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