A raging Titus Andronicus strike the right chord

Photo: At their April 13th show at Oakland's the New Parish, Titus Andronicus  put on a history lesson cum punk extravaganza that meshed higher-learning with gut-appealing.
Victoria Jacob/Courtesy
At their April 13th show at Oakland's the New Parish, Titus Andronicus put on a history lesson cum punk extravaganza that meshed higher-learning with gut-appealing.

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Titus Andronicus is a band with one foot in the past and the other on your throat. On their debut album The Airing of the Grievances, they combined hard-charging, whiskey-soaked punk with history-wonk references to postwar existentialism and 16th-century Flemish printmaker Pieter Brueghel. Their stunning 2010 concept album, The Monitor, was an elaborate extended metaphor, using the American Civil War as a thematic stand-in for contemporary self-loathing and rage.

They've got brains and balls, something to say and a pissed-off, gravel-throated voice with which to say it. In a way, they're like a militant version of the Decemberists - they've got the same nerdy obsession with historical detail, but combine it with a seismic fury that makes them infinitely more electrifying.

Last Wednesday, April 13th, was the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter. It was also, appropriately enough, the date of Titus' appearance at the New Parish in Oakland. Like a classic punk rock number, the set was tight and fast, and it was brutal and explosive as a blast of rebel artillery.

Soon after taking the stage, frontman Patrick Stickles promised to "dispense with the pleasantries," and immediately launched into "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ," the first track from Grievances. Over the course of the set, he and his band galloped through all the standouts from both their albums, while still managing to fit in a kickass Ramones cover at the end. There was no banter, no encore and no bullshit. Titus spent the hour blazing away at the audience like a cannon volley, while the crowd absorbed their fire and hurled it right back, chanting, moshing and crowd surfing with furious abandon.

Beyond the band's energy, it was the audience that truly made Wednesday's experience complete. The crowd was made up almost exclusively of die-hards - people who weren't averse to shouting themselves hoarse right along with Stickles or to getting banged up a bit in a raging maelstrom of ferocious (but fraternal!) moshing.

They were also, perhaps unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly male. The ratio of men to women at the show was about 5:1, which probably reflects Titus' fanbase as a whole - unfortunately, because there's nothing particularly gendered about Stickles' heartfelt, angry-poet songwriting. Punk rock can sometimes be a bit of a boys' club, but it's likely that, as they continue to achieve mainstream(ish) success, Titus Andronicus will eventually start drawing broader and more diverse crowds.

It's also worth noting that the night's opening act - Infantree - was damn good. Their brand of melodic, blues-influenced indie rock stood out in sharp contrast to the unsparing vehemence delivered by Titus, but it served as a pleasant warm-up to the main event, a sort of calm before Titus' storm. Infantree can piece together an impressive three-part harmony, and their lead guitarist's got both remarkable technical chops and soul, which is a rare combination.

Throughout his set, Stickles kept mentioning how he had to keep things brief, since Lauryn Hill was dropping in for a surprise concert at midnight. This announcement was always greeted with a chorus of defiant boos from the crowd - with all due respect to Ms. Hill, there was something glorious about those boos.

Stickles may be taciturn, but he's still a showman and knows how to work a crowd. By emphasizing the disruption caused by the arrival of a big-league chart and Grammy champion, he was cementing the communal solidarity and sense of embattlement that characterizes both his songs and the people who love them. "It's still us against them and they're winning" is the refrain from The Monitor's "Four Score and Seven." On Wednesday night at the New Parish, everyone knew what that meant, and everyone was a part of that "us."

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