I was on the Titus Andronicus list for an East London gig about 2 years ago. When I knew the gig was cancelled I was already on the train to Liverpool street, such the trepidation.
I have been waiting for them since and, after missing another London gig last May, I was ready to travel far to catch their next UK tour.
When the tweet arrived that Titus Andronicus were coming to play 300 yards from my house I welcomed it as if the mountain defied the proverb and decided to go to me.
In addition of the time they spent on planning a tour which was going to touch, basically, my local pub (I never go to pub if not for gigs), Titus Andronicus year has been quite astonishing.
The Monitor, their second album, came out in march and it stands out as one of the most daring works published in years.
In a trend that sees albums length back to 40 minutes to fulfill the increasing request for vynils and to decrease the production costs, The Monitor clocks over 65 minutes. It fills up a CD in the old nineties’ way.
More. It is a concept album, another of those forgotten things of the seventies but, far from being a prog album (thanks God, actually, thanks the band), they preserve the punk attitude of the amazing debut: The Airing of Grievances.
To be daring they are far beyond punk clichés, they confront them.
The production is rich, the album spans most of the East coast musical history including memories of the Celts immigrants that arrived on those shores.
Titus Andronicus are from New Jersey. I don’t think, probably there is even a federal law, that it is possible to be from New Jersey and ignoring Bruce Springsteen. It must be like being Irish and not drinking Guinnes or a Japanese that hates green tea.
To get rid of the Boss’ burden Titus Andronicus put the needed reference quote in the first song of the album. The outstanding A More Perfect Union goes
“No, I never wanted to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey
Because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die”
Brave, ain’t it? Listen to it, then let me know if Springsteen shouldn’t join them instead of the Gaslight Anthem on stage. To change “run” with “die” added a bit of fatalistic realism that, if possible, makes the song even more anthemic than Born To Run.
Of course the Monitor does not stop at Boss’ edges of town. The band inspiration virtually crosses the pond to pick influences from Irish folk and English punk. Key references from the Pogues, I’d say those Pogues shortly fronted by Joe Strummer more than drunken Shane MacGowan wobbliness.
To close the circle it is impossible to not acknowledge the Clash, the Clash in their most experimental phase. When they succeed to avoid that punk denied its essence to become a conservative movement.
The concept is grand, and it is also difficult to identify beyond the album cover. The Monitor it is supposed to be about the American Civil War but listening to it, it sounds more like the inner civil war an American guy has with himself.
They are and use literate references, that strongly suggest you read the lyrics, and write sing-a-long choruses that become statements ready to go on T-shirts and viral spread inside people’s mind.
Titus Andronicus Forever (a song) contains that line “The enemy is everywhere” which as any concept album lover knows (“see me, feel me”, “Love reign O’er me” anyone?) bounce back in other tracks and is capable of generating a mayhem in the audience anytime it appears.
It is not for anyone to have an 8.6 average on the first two Pitchfork reviews but this is not only what Titus Andronicus achieved. The praise goes beyond and reaches any music-zine in the world. A band universally, critically acclaimed. Time has come for that universe to go out and catch them live.
Despite an American plug didn’t like the UK adaptor, Patrick Stickles in the end manages to get his guitar working. The 5 guys can start.
A More Perfect Union opens the gig and from the first moment I can see that the cleanness of the record get rawer live. The voice is less evident, guitars more abrasive and the rhytm ready to change to adapt to their style.
From there it is a crescendo. There is no setlist, they don’t have to agree on the songs, they come natural. The opening matches The monitor songlist for a short while, it is a concept for a reason, then it is hijacked onto tracks from The Airing of Grievances. A bursting power.
They dedicate the angry anthem of Fear And Loathing In Mahwah, NJ, the song that introduced themselves to the world, to the University of Cambridge (or was it to its students? Nevermind)
“The world screams out in agony and you don’t care,
but should the shit hit the fan,
I just pray you will not be spared.
The energy the fans shout the “Fuck You” at the end of the first strophe was momentous.
As their most characteristic songs, halfway through there is an abrupt change of rhythm, volume and style. From a quiet ballad they move into rousing hymns of generational power. When it happens they give their best.
Patrick Stickles goes into a guitar solo of old times, even including some tapping but never showing off (first rule from the manual of the perfect indie band) never over the top or outside the meaning and the needs of the piece.
Titus Androincus is a classic 5 people line-up. A Keyboard/guitarist, drums, bass and a second guitarist.
A special praise must go to Amy Klein which also contributes to the more folky bits with an electric violin.
It is becoming less rare to see a girl on guitar, with plenty of emerging girls rockbands, but it is rare to see such a passion put into a Gibson.
Totally immersed in the music, jumping up and down throughout the gig, fist in the air when her open chords flow through the amplifier, in the Pete Townshend style, Amy is the backbone of Titus Andronicus sound.
Standing on the right with no attention to anything else but the song and the audience she is another clear evidence of how much American rock distinguishes from English bands’ desperate need to find the image before the music. Guess where the lack of ideas is.
There is no coolness here or, better, coolness is into the music. They play great music. They can play great music. They love to play great music.
This band came all the way from USA, touring on a small van throughout the country, drinking cheap beers and eating frozen burger and chips. They fill (or even half fill) some tiny venues to give the audience a memorable intimate show for few quid that won’t even pay petrol cost and accomodation. Then drive somewhere else. This is passion, dedication, nothing else than love. Love for the things you are doing.
Titus Andronicus deserve many more people jumping up and down to the cathartic experience of their verses.
The most relevant songs have the band name in it. I cited Titus Andronicus Forever with “The Enemy Is Everywhere”. On the first album there was also a song simply called Titus Andronicus.
It has the “Your life is over” verse, it arrives at the end of a statement that should be engraved on the independent rock’n’roll songbook.
A crystalline example of Freudian sublimation. The frustration that is put into art and its expression becomes the proof that failure can be overcome by a masterpiece.
“Throw my guitar down on the floor
No one cares what I’ve got to say anymore
I didn’t come here to be damned with faint praise
I’ll write my masterpiece some other day
(Fuck everything, fuck me)
I’m repeating myself again
Innovation, I leave to smarter men
Pretty melodies don’t fall out of the air for me
I’ve got to steal them from somewhere
But it doesn’t matter what you do
Or how hard you try
Now there’s nothing left for me to do except die
When they cut you up
And tell you that it’s not going to hurt
But they are not going to stop until they see you go to sleep in the dirt
There’ll be no more cigarettes
No more having sex
No more drinking until you fall on the floor
No more indie rock
Just a ticking clock
You have no time for that anymore
You better watch where you run your mouth
Because you know what they’ll say to you
Your life is over”
I am running short of photo tips, I must admit, so it’s with pleasure I realize I haven’t said anything about left hand musicians.
Well, the only ones that matter to music photography are guitarists and bassists, where, you may have noticed since Jimi Hendrix, the instrument is flipped.
Our eyes even when it doesn’t look obvious, are used to conventions.
If you are not British you’ll find weird seeing cars driving on the left side of the road.
If you are left handed you hate those people who produce items that can only be used by right handed people. From fountain pens (try to write with your left hand) to knives. Scissors are a pain and even the computer mouse required me a lot of training to get used to have it on the right. There is only a way to use a camera and there are no left-hand SLRs.
If you, left handed, try to pick a guitar you’ll notice it’s the other way round. You have to invert the strings and the saddle too… or you have to buy a left handed model, who will cost you more.
When there is a left handed musician on stage, it looks unconventional, odd. The neck is inverted and looks strange. The musician’s right hand is on the frets and the left picks the strings and strums.
(I always found this counter intuitive. I believe it is the hand on the neck doing the trickiest parts and needs skills but I can assure it feels natural to put your less skilled hand on the frets)
Photography wise, having a left handed guitarist on stage together with a right handed (which is usually the case), gives photography an interesting edge. Since the two necks tend to cross each other, there is a simmetry that lacks in more conventional situations.
Simmetry always work in photo composition, if the band put the right handed guy on the left, the pair works even better.
If this is the case, keep an eye on it, the most obvious of photos can have a plus. It may sounds banal, but live music photography tends to be all-the-same, there is not much of a difference from band to band when you have seen hundreds on stage. To keep your eye open on small details is paramount, a small variation may be enough to have a big impact.