What I’ve learned tonight is that Titus Andronicus is an album band, presenting a different experience in their live show, but I’ll come back to that. Titus Andronicus is other things too: highly conceptual, loud (most of the time), funny, confusing, not immediately accessible, fun.
He’s (they’re) at the Turf Club tonight. Saturday, Saint Patrick’s Day. The crowd here doesn’t seem to care about the holiday, which is agreeable. No green shamrock crowns or “Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced” shirts, just a lot of horn-rimmed glasses, beards and muted hues: grays and browns and blues and blacks. The house is twenty-five people short of packed. It’s dark and warm. Cozy.
There is no drum set on stage, but there is a piano which someone begins to play, softly. Patrick Stickles comes out and grabs the mic. This is a song from the back half of 2010’s The Monitor, a quiet marching ballad called “To Old Friends and New.” It’s a good opening selection for what I’m realizing is going to be an acoustic set: the song already has sparse instrumentation.
Immediately, I’m struck by how incredibly different from the album Stickles’ voice sounds here in this room. Titus is the kind of band that doesn’t need a virtuosic vocalist – its indie-punk and shout-singing is appropriate – but the contrast is sharp. Stickles barely enunciates and sort of dances around the melody instead of adhering to it. These are first impressions, so I don’t let them take up too much space in my head.
Vocals aside, this dialed-back presentation of Titus Andronicus kind of works. There is an intimacy to it, and also a sense of agreement. There is more space for the fuzzy, mid-range guitar to inhabit and the 88-key digital piano nicely fills out the lows and highs. Stickles’ guitar work is mostly open tuned rhythm playing and it keeps the tempo grounded. We get a spanning his full career: a few songs from their 2008 debut Airing of Grievances, from The Monitor, from Local Business, A Most Lamentable Tragedy, up to this year’s A Productive Cough.
Midway through the set, they do a crowd pleaser: “Theme From Cheers” from The Monitor. This is a drinking song and I find myself screaming along “I need a whiskey!” This is about as ‘Saint Paddy’s’ as I really want to get tonight. It’s just enough. As the song closes, the piano player begins playing the actual theme song from Cheers and we are giddy, giggling, sipping. Patrick does a few verses and hops off the stage, wireless mic in hand, to hit the bar. This is the kind of antic only a smaller venue like The Turf Club can facilitate. The pianist changes it up and begins a slow, lilting ballad that sounds eerily familiar, but I can’t place it. Stickles takes a shot and climbs up on the bar.
“I like to sleep until the crack of noon/ Midnight howling at the moon.”
Oh, it’s Tom Waits. “Better off Without a Wife.” Nighthawks at The Diner. Stickles is standing on the bar now, screaming through this cover, Guinness in hand. Somewhere in the back of the house the lighting operator is scrambling, trying to illuminate the bar, and spotlights blink in and out at different angles, almost strobing. What a sight.
And then it’s back on stage. They do two songs from The Most Lamentable Tragedy and close with a Prince cover – “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man.“ Prince would certainly have had some things to say about this version. I’ve begun to adjust to the incongruity of Titus ‘the album’ and Titus ‘the live performance.’ I’ve quit worrying myself with the comparison. Titus Andronicus is an album band, certainly, but the live show is engaging, energetic, immersive, and emotional.
This new, quieter album and subsequent acoustic tour certainly mark a musical turn for Titus Andronicus, but the raw energy is still immediate and present. However, please listen to the album before you go out to the show, you’ll thank me.