Titus Andronicus Air Grievances in San Francisco
August 14, 2008 · Print This Article
by Luke Pimentel, Contributing Editor
August 13, 2008
Anyone who’s participated in a local music scene has been here.
You know the place: It has wobbly little tables, drab-ass lights, and plastic strips borrowed from a meat locker hanging in the doorway. Those meat locker strips are particularly appropriate, since the whole place is but a shrine to the butchery of livers, auditory canals, and guitar strings.
It’s the Dank, Alcohol-Saturated, Back-Room Hovel.
There’s a certain charm to these settings, a sense of community and spontaneity often missing from rest of the live music world. Band members mingle with the audience, set up and take down their own gear, sell their own merch, and occasionally proposition the crowd for a place to crash. The tragedy – or poetry, depending on how you look at it – is that for all their trouble, most of the bands here will never play anything bigger than a Dank, Alcohol-Saturated, Back-Room Hovel.
Of course, the nice thing about rules is that there are always exceptions to them. New Jersey outfit Titus Andronicus would be one of the exceptions.
Why? Well, for one thing, Titus Andronicus are big – I mean, physically big. Watching the band cram its six members, four guitars, and Mars Volta-sized arsenal of effects onto a stage smaller than the trunk of my car was like witnessing an army invading a toolshed.
For another thing, they’re really good. Their debut LP The Airing of Grievances, released in April on the Troubleman Unlimited label, is one of the most astonishing releases of 2008 so far. The album has inspired a litany of comparisons so broad in scope that it begs to be assessed as more than a mere collection of drunken epithets screamed into the wind, unlike the work of so many other bands with origins in punk, hardcore, and “screamo”.
That’s not to say that the album “transcends” its origins, exactly. As you might expect from their name – taken from the Shakespeare play featuring rape, cannibalism, and all other manner of icky suffering – Titus Andronicus do not sing about happy things.
A choice sampling of their worldview can be found in the lyrics of their ominously-titled ditty “My Time Outside the Womb”:
The first thing you see is the light/Then you focus on a man in a mask with a knife/As he cuts you away from everything you thought you knew about life/And now you’re in your mother’s arms, wrinkled and wet/You’re gonna spend the rest of your life trying hard to forget/That you met the world naked and screaming, and that’s how you’ll leave it.
Ouch. Heavy stuff, but also pithy and evocative, especially when carried on an infectious, brilliantly Boss-esque guitar groove that wouldn’t be out of place on any brand of mainstream rock radio. Therein lies the central irony at the heart of Titus Andronicus: their shambling, raging exterior houses an arena-sized sound that, with a little finesse, could one day give bands like U2 and Arcade Fire a run for their anthemic money.
Pack that arena sound into a tiny little closet like the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco, and it’s a fair bet the roof will barely be standing by the time all is said and done.
That was certainly the case on August 3rd, when the band took the stage for a fierce headlining set that crammed as many bodies and rambunctious antics as possible into the limited space and suspect acoustics.
Titus Andronicus at the Hemlock — photo by Luke Pimentel
“This is going a lot better than the last time I was here,” lead singer Patrick Stickles remarked, referring to an unfortunate incident detailed in the song “Arms Against Atrophy” that had comprised the band’s sum total of life experience in San Francisco prior to the evening’s show.
While Liam Betson, Andrew Cedermark, Ian Graetzer, Eric Harm, and Dan Tews battled to avoid crashing guitar necks and elbows into one-another, Stickles cut loose with bursts of tambourine, harmonica, and hoarse screamaholic wails reminiscent of Fevers and Mirrors-era Conor Oberst. His delivery was the perfect lynchpin for the sublime volatility of the rest of the band, and their frenzied marriage made repeated mantras like “your life is over” seem almost giddy instead of cathartic. Doomsday has rarely been more singalong-worthy.
Stickles also dropped references to local music, introducing “No Future” as a song reminiscent of the Grateful Dead (“smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!”), while identifying the album’s eponymous track as soundalike to a little-known South Bay band called Nodzzz. The latter shout-out was one of few moments on the night that drew crickets from the audience, indicating that a bunch of guys from Jersey were hipper about the Bay Area music scene than the locals who were supposed to be populating it.
Though the alternative press has rallied behind Titus Andronicus in recent months, the band have actually been gigging since 2005. The exhaustion creasing their eyebrows as they cranked out show finale “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, N.J.” brought back the inescapable fact that, in spite of this being their first proper U.S. tour, they are still chin-deep in the “dues-paying” portion of their career.
Nevertheless, the packed room of enthusiastic listeners in S.F. gave every indication that, if their ambition is even half as big as their potential, it won’t be long before they’ve left their Hemlock days behind in a blaze of reverb. With an ever-growing number of fans and critics gleefully adding The Airing of Grievances to their year-end top-ten lists, the only way to go is up.
Titus Andronicus at the Hemlock — photo by Luke Pimentel