Titus Andronicus at Turner Hall
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The last time Titus Andronicus played Milwaukee, it was clear that singer Patrick Stickles and his band had something to prove. They were the opening act for Bright Eyes, playing to a Riverside crowd still filtering in and mingling, but they quickly captivated the room with over-the-top energy and a breathless, unpredictable performance. Friday night’s show at Turner Hall was an entirely different story. With a devoted crowd belting out the tunes along with him, Stickles played it straight, and following memorable opening sets by Jaill and Ceremony, most of his songs didn’t pack enough of a punch to impress anybody but the choir he was preaching to.
An unfortunate twist in the endless sub-categorization of rock and roll is that bands as disparate as Titus and Ceremony both get lumped into “punk.” It wouldn’t be so laughable if Stickles didn’t insist on claiming the tag for himself. As a result, inviting the ferocious Frisco-area freaks of Ceremony on this tour was an audacious choice, but probably a mistake. In terms of visceral power and attitude, Titus was blown off the stage by the special guests. Ceremony’s new album Zoo may signal a slower, more post-punk direction compared to its hardcore roots, but (despite vocalist Ross Ferrar’s odd fixation on his belt buckle) the band’s performance Friday night was a snarling, bombastic spectacle of all the qualities punk was founded on.
The ensuing headliner set just seemed lazy by comparison. Stickles is an occasionally great lyricist and a terrific vocalist, but as the set wore on the lack of imagination that characterizes his band’s actual music became apparent. The success of the band’s first two albums was heavily dependent on atmospheric studio sonics, augmentation by outside collaborators, and narrative arc. In a stripped-down, straight-ahead rock situation, the parade of simplistic guitar riffs was less than intriguing. There’s an element of gravity and a heavy dose of essential Garden-State yearning in Titus’ best moments, but Friday’s setlist lacked any sort of flow or drama; it seemed cobbled together out of the band’s least dynamic material, owing largely to the relative lack of ambition showcased on new album Local Business. “To Old Friends And New” was the one song that was actually much better than the recorded version, as Stickles and the audience made a glorious racket of the heartfelt climax. Otherwise, this was merely a good set of standard indie rock by a band capable of much more.