We Checked, Punk is Still Dead
Titus Andronicus and Ceremony beat a dead horse with moderate glee
A few weeks ago I got the rare opportunity to see a “punk” show with someone I know to be a true punk fan. By “true” I mean he lived through the real rise and dénouement of the genre in the 70’s and 80’s, and very well may know what Henry Rollins’ sweat tastes like. So arriving at the Larimer Lounge maybe my expectations for an authentic evening were overly high. Then again, headlining were Pitchfork darlings Titus Andronicus, one of the most highly visible and celebrated quasi-punk acts to play in the modern day. This was my chance to get up to my un-washed armpits in “the scene”, with the ultimate context in tow, and find out what exactly had become of punk in the modern age.
The answer is, not much. I was only briefly impressed when opener Ceremony started their set a fitting 13 minutes late. Dead-pan yelling lyrics into the faces of the youngest audience members, the singer stacked and pulled the comically small mob in front of him, who piled and pushed themselves up on each others shoulders in front of the already-short stage, was engaging for song or two. Ear splitting snare cracked through the sound as the crowd expanded in a breath at some halfhearted and short-lived slam dancing, making me sure I wasn’t the only person not quite feeling it. As far as hardcore punk goes, the band live up to their shtick but had a hard time moving past it. There was the obligatory mention of how much being in jail sucks (congrats, you are so thoroughly punk rock), and a guitar player in a studded jacket. Turning to the audience in a flip of coiffed hair atop skin-shaved sides, his dull lined eyes wallow sideways in their sockets and he wonders about his next underground hit. Or his first. Or maybe nothing.
If you want a point of reference for where the evening starts to fall apart, just wait for him to turns his back to you. Then you would notice that his carefully bedazzled black denim is covered on the back with a large Prince symbol. And there, any faint illusion that this night is hearkening authentically back in time as much as their music suggests, falls apart. Not only did Prince change his name to “Love Symbol #2” a full dozen years after Henry Rollins joined black flag, 16 years after the Sex Pistols released “Never mind the bollocks” and 17 years after the Ramones’ self-titled debut, but can you honestly tell me you can picture any of those band pal-ing around with the utterly fabulous Prince—by that point already a platinum-selling artist? Oh, hell no.
Here’s better example closer to Ceremony’s sub-genre. Can you imagine what would happen if you put Glenn Danzig and Prince in a room together for an hour? I’ll give you a hint: you can forget about Prince ever performing anything again but a kazoo solo through a crazy straw.
Not to lambast the poor boy in the jacket too badly, but if your band is going to play pretty unoriginal interpretations of a 30+ year-old genre, you’d at least better act the part. And while you’re at it, take down the ridiculous hipster-graphic-designed t-shirts at your merch stand. I grew less and less enchanted with Ceremony as their set wore on (and I mean wore) and ultimately its one redeeming quality was for watching suburban teen fans pretend to be hard, and watching the Titus Andronicus fans lurk in the background in sweaters. Overall though, it’s exactly what you would think hardcore punk would sound like in person, just without anything real or interesting going on.
As their set ended, it suddenly occurred to me that the night was not going to be a bonfire celebration of what punk is today, but rather a smoldering effigy of to what the scene once was.
Still, when Titus Andronicus came on I managed to rally my excitement. “The Monitor” is one of my more-frequented listens of the last few years, and earlier overhearing Patrick Stickles mentioning loading in and doing their own sound check in the front of house, I was heartened that the DIY beauty might shine through on stage. Stickles and crew come on stage holding an instruments and as usual the crowd simply can’t be bothered until the music starts. Bands are nothing without sound. But with the first words into the microphone, the mustaches move to the front, and flannel becomes replete, repeating lines on lines vertical and horizontal stood stock still and staring.
They start with the opening track off of Local Business—the album that begs the question of if their fame will be as short-lived as my interest in Ceremony. As a whole, the band is an example of stylistic punk not punk heart. Their performance is not nearly as compelling (which you could also read as “not compelling”), their sound infinitely more melodic, and their fans apologize as they push past me to get to the front. The bass player looks like a more human Brian Posehn. Titus plays tight with the Stickles’ eyes snapped shut in tuneless ecstasy of what he’s saying. People nod their heads more than bob, in affirmation rather than feeling the time, and based on the room in the venue every Ceremony fan has gone to beat up old ladies and smoke cigarettes to make a point.
When they finally get around to playing something off of The Airing of Grievances, the crowd cheers more enthusiastically and the band feels more at home with their sound. Dipping this far back both makes you realize how much the sound has changed with Local Business, and the unsureness in Stickles’ voice on newer songs points strongly toward the fact that they may be over-reaching now that they’ve found favor. A rare exception to this is “Electric man”, which I absolutely can’t stand listening to on the album, but actually works live. Minus this positive point, the sound is good and true to the record—they’re polished and smart—but Stickles often detracts from the songs, singing far outside the comfort range of a voice clearly meant for the less melodic, rough style of earlier albums. He simply can’t pull off the new ones well live, and it makes you wonder about the future of the band.
In a way, Titus Andronicus is the un-punk. Three guitars, peppy rhythms, joy effusive and songs of stories more than messages. It’s the punk evolution of folk more than the modern representation of the Ramones. As proof, here are some real things I heard from the band during the set: a call-out to Aunt Carol and three cousins in town all the way from New Jersey; a quick explanation of “Mosh pit etiquette” (pick them up if they fall down); and the words “Alright let’s do it boys in F sharp.” Need to say anything more?
Wandering to the back of the venue, I found my elder punk-savvy friend looking let-down and a bit peeved that he’d let a friend convince him Titus Andronicus might be anything other than average. “If you want a show, go see Black Flag,” is the advice he offers before leaving early, and frankly I couldn’t agree more. From upstairs in the bathroom, you wouldn’t even know it was a show. Andronicus’ sound is so cleaned up and reasonably-presented that it sounds like someone’s just having a party downstairs. When the band plays one of my favorite songs, “To old friends and new”, I certainly feel something but it’s more of a melodic slow jam than a messianic message to rally the nation in revolution. For better or for worse this pop music and there is no doubt about it.
Kudos to Larimer Lounge for another great show and remaining a great venue, and a big thanks to Radio 1190 for presenting the bands and setting us up with tickets. But as for the artists themselves, the only people who left from seeing Titus Andronicus blown away had walked in already convinced they would be. The true draw for seeing Titus Andronicus live is emotional. And unless this I think we can all guess how well that sort of appeal will last.