The Oversized Ambition of Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus in a performance last month in Dallas.
Melissa Hennings for the Dallas Observer.

Earlier this week at the Marquis Theater, opening band Spiderbags introduced Titus Andronicus as the "best rock n' roll band on the planet," and that just might be true. No band in the last decade has been as ambitious or creative. Between this year's rock operaThe Most Lamentable Tragedy and 2010's Civil War themed epic The Monitor, Titus Andronicus has taken its east-coast, punk-inspired sound to stratospheric heights. But watching the six-piece band squeeze onto the tiny stage at the Marquis, playing intricate melodies to a half-full room, it was clear that this band will never be what it could've been.

Titus Andronicus is not a normal punk band. Sure, there are short bursts of songs about how your life is over and everything sucks, and you can mosh and yell to every song with ease, but the band aims for something higher. There are nine-minute songs sung from the perspective of a Civil War soldier returning home. The sounds on stage switch from thrash to Chicago-style blues to some of the catchiest rock melodies around. This band is nothing is not big, and watching it, you can tell frontman and leader Patrick Stickles has a big vision for his music. 

The band opened with "Four Score and Seven," a long, meandering quiet song featuring, until the end, just guitar and piano. It was a bold choice, and a bolder one considering the audience all too eager to start jumping around and into each other. It would've worked in a larger theater. It's a serious song and could be a serious opening to a brilliant set, if it was anywhere else. At the small Marquis with a small crowd, it felt — even if the crowd knew every word — uncomfortable. 

That feeling lingered throughout the set. There were pauses and transitions built for a dramatic effect that was all but absent in the small club. Stickles stage banter consisted of reminding people to properly dispose of their beer and to not jostle anyone else too hard. At one point he even stopped a song because a crowd member was clapping along. At one point he referred to himself as "the artist." It might have been ironic, but either way in a setting where no real energy had been decided upon, where Stickles and his band were hardly in command the way they must have imagined in their heads, it was purely off-putting. 

The entire show, while of course raucous and brilliant, felt off. The band members barely fit on stage. Stickles kept taking long breaks between songs to fix some little sound here or there. Titus Andronicus is not sloppy, not casual. Sloppy, casual bands do not release a giant LP around a fictional bi-polar character. This is the kind of band that is built to sell out a larger theatre, so that, for lack of a better term, the set could contain an air of theatre.

Despite the fact that the sweeping guitar riffs and pulse-quickening builds never sounded quite as epic live as they do in one's car stereo, this band can still fucking rock. Stickles strained howl is nothing to be messed with, and with three guitar players, the set was nothing if not loud, fast and hard. 

Punk rock songs, whether about being a loser or returning home from the Civil War, inherently work in a small space. There are few things better than ear-drum blasting loud guitars and drums in a small room with people hurling themselves at each other, trying to create an explosion of energy. It's really all one can hope for. If that is the standard for punk rock, the litmus test of a good show, then Titus Andronicus delivered. 

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