The decline of America is everywhere. That is, except in the sweaty, smoky backroom of a bar in Atlanta, Georgia, where it’s too dark to see anything but a stage, the band on it, and the hundreds of bright eyes staring passionately at a group of scrawny Jersey kids. America is unified once again, if only for one evening, for Titus Andronicus at The Earl.
On this night, the five-piece band makes their final preparations before blasting off into their brand of passionate indie-punk. Fidgeting about onstage in a swell of reverb and Blue Ribbon cans, you can almost hear the stirring Abraham Lincoln intro to “A More Perfect Union,” the opening song on the band’s sophomore LP The Monitor (XL Recordings, 2010).
Lead man Patrick Stickles steps up to the mic and simply says, “Let’s make this the funnest Monday night ever.” Then, boom. “A More Perfect Union,” its jagged, sawing guitar and the giddy-up of a tribal drum throb provide backing for a siege of unabashed musical celebration. The bearded, lanky front man of the group sways with his guitar to and fro as an American flag attached to his waist dips and dives like it’s on the pole of your hometown baseball field.
He growls, “Because where I’m going to now, no one can ever hurt me / Where the well of human hatred is shallow and dry /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.”
Soon, as the song moves into its rollicking bridge, the crowd joins Stickles and his four band mates (Ian Graetzer, Eric Harm, Amy Klien, and David Robbins) in a chant of “Oh-oh-oh-oooooooh / na-na-nananana-na-na / Yeah!” that puts any World Cup pub sing-a-long to shame.
On the other side of a sweltering guitar solo, Stickles again snarls while climbing atop the stage’s PA and sings, “Woe, oh woe is me, no one knows the trouble I see / When they hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree, I’ll sit beneath the leaves and weep / None of us shall be saved, every man will be a slave / For John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave and there’s rumbling down in the caves.”
By the time the whole gang rips back up in a rousing homestretch of seething guitar, ragged bass and drum-roll, the crowd, propped on each other’s shoulders and chanting Stickles’ every word, sings in heated harmony as he finishes, “Rally around the flag, boys, rally once again / Shouting the battle cry of freedom!”
Goddam. That was just the first song. It sets the tone for the raucous evening, though, before Stickles brings up baseball by making fun of his Phillie-fan guitar player and pandering to the crowd made up of Braves enthusiasts before spilling out, “Everyone knows the Mets are the best team,” which is greeted by a chorus of boos. “But we can be friends, anyway,” Stickles responds with a laugh before diving back into the music.
The set list brings music and crowd into a percolating, boiling oneness with each song scratched off the playlist from The Monitor and a few tunes found on the team’s debut, The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman/XL Recordings, 2008). During the performance, random members from the opening bands Free Energy and Turf War join the onstage festivities, as does the odd audience member. As the steam train that is the Titus Andronicus live show rolls on, the crowd chants familiar and powerful pieces of Stickles’ lyrics while the swirling revolution inherent in punk rock songs like “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” and the epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads” washes over them.
It feels right when Stickles slurs the lyrics along with a hundred other folks on “Theme from ‘Cheers.’” “I can get up early, go to work and come home, and start it all over again / But while we’re young, boys, everybody raise your glasses high / Singing, ‘Here’s to the good times, here’s to the home team / Kiss the good times goodbye, oh yeah.’”
By the time Titus Andronicus closes with “Four Score and Seven,” the most powerful song on perhaps the most powerful and pure record of the millennium so far, the throbbing masses mix in with buzzing guitars, clinking glasses, smoky haze, and an aura of stage lights which seem like a perfect portrait of Americana painted in the moment we should all be living.
After the show, Stickles seems to have followed his own example, making sure this was, indeed, the funnest Monday night in America. “We had a great audience tonight, and we just wanted to make sure we were ourselves onstage. And I think we projected that kind of fuzzy feeling to everyone,” Stickles says with a smile. “Sometimes, in this day and age, this post-modern nightmare our society can be, you just have to rock. I mean, what else is there?”
Photos by Coleman WoodVisit: Titus Andronicus