Titus Andronicus Impress in Chapel Hill
Concert Review by David Menconi
Sunday, April 18
Local 506 (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Somehow, Patrick Stickles’ eyes got even wider as he leaned into the microphone and offered up the first of many statement-of-purpose ?declarations.?
“No, I never wanted to change the world,” he bellowed as the rest of Titus Andronicus pounded away behind him. “But I’m looking for a new ?New Jersey, because tramps like us, BABY WE WERE BORN TO DIIIIIIIIIIIE!”
That’s from the first song on the new Titus Andronicus album, The? Monitor (XL Recordings), and it opened the band’s 90-minute ?performance in Chapel Hill, N.C. — an indie-rock outpost whose denizens can be hard to impress when out-of-town bands come calling. But this New ?Jersey quintet made it look easy.
Well, maybe not “easy” because Titus Andronicus doesn’t do anything ?easy. You’d expect epic audacity from any band with the nerve to take ?its name from Shakespeare’s earliest, goriest tragedy, and the group ?surely does deliver. Titus Andronicus has shown ambitions aplenty on ?its two full-length albums, especially The Monitor, a capital-C Concept album about the Civil War with enough thematic intricacies to ?keep Sufjan Stevens busy. Titled after the Civil War-era submarine, The Monitor includes spoken-word Abe Lincoln quotes, a “Suggested Further Reading” list in the credits and enough impassioned grandeur? to march a couple of divisions off to war.
Live, however, the band’s sonic assault sweeps most of that conceptual baggage away in an exhilarating, slightly scary rush. Onstage in a smallish Chapel Hill nightclub, Titus Andronicus? projected enough wild-eyed intensity to carry to the back wall of a stadium. The prudent thing would have been to get out of the way, but ?what’s the fun of that?
Stickles’ gaunt build, shaggy beard and bemused thousand-yard stare could pass for Jude Law circa Cold Mountain. And he has a scream for the ages, a voice-of-doom howl that sounded like something you’d hear on a battlefield. The aforementioned show-opening “A More Perfect Union” recast the traditional song “Am I Born To Die?” as a Bruce Springsteen anthem, revved up to punk velocity with Stickles’ scream riding shotgun. It was exhilarating.
Stickles and his other frontline mates stayed in constant, kinetic motion as drummer Eric Harm and left-handed bassist Ian Graetzer (who played a Fender Precision) set a martial pace that generally fell somewhere between a gallop and a rampage. Amy Klein was the most ?notable instrumentalist on guitar and fiddle, throwing in parts of “Taps” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The only thing missing was “Ashokan Farewell,” the theme from Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and I ?couldn’t swear she didn’t play that in there somewhere, too.?
Titus Andronicus does get by more on momentum than precision, but it was an impressive performance thanks to an unerring sense of vision. ?By the end, Stickles was fatalistically declaring, “It’s still us ?against them/And they’re winning.”
Not from where I stood.