It may have taken a few years longer than we would have liked, but Titus Andronicus finally returned to Portland as headliners on Friday night for a thrilling set in the intimate confines of Mississippi Studios. Fresh off the heels of the release of their sprawling rock-opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy, Patrick Stickles & Co. delivered a spirited set to an energetic crowd, seamlessly weaving songs from across their four albums into a series of mini-epics. The band left the audience so amped up by the end that a trip to one of Oregon’s brand new legal dispensaries was probably necessary, though there were probably only a few that needed such an excuse to indulge.
Classy marquee inside the venue.
After a brief explanation as to why the group made an exception to their policy of performing all-ages show, frontman Patrick Stickles began the night with a solemn version of “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'” backed by a mournful keyboard, then effortlessly segued into a spirited full-band version of the similarly-titled and locale-appropriate “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus”, setting the tone for the rest of the night. Perhaps inspired by the format of their most recent release, the group blended songs from throughout their career into unpredictable but brilliant suites. Stickles made sure to spotlight guitarist Adam Reich and give him kudos for his “Pearl Jam-like” ability in constructing the setlist. For those unfamiliar with the reference, it is heady praise indeed.
The band found the right mix between professional and loose, able to knock out such difficult maneuvers as a dual tapping-solo guitar attack for “A More Perfect Union” while also avoiding any stiffness from attempting to pull off these complex tricks, and just letting mistakes slide by–as referenced by Stickles, who said he didn’t need to hear any more of his guitar in the monitors so he could ignore any flubs. The audience ate up both the old and new material, with many singing along to songs from Tragedy, though the response to early tracks like “Albert Camus” and “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ” generated the fiercest reaction. The recent legalization of commercial sale of marijuana also prompted a short speech on the “evils” of pot, and spurred a spirited take on “Tried to Quit Smoking”–only to pull a fast one a couple of songs later by throwing in a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”, to which everyone sang along to the memorable chorus of “Everybody must get stoned.”
Deciding on an encore song.
After a furious finish with “Dimed Out”, the crowd was able to goad the band into a quick encore, despite the show pushing well past midnight at this point. Eventually, as a nod to both the baseball playoffs and their upcoming trip into the Great White North, the crew indulged the crowd with an enthusiastic take on Neil Young’s “Walk On”, before ending the night with “I Saw Her Standing There” from The Beatles. Though it would be difficult to beat what we witnessed, here’s a suggestion for the guys if they need a Portland-specific cover for their next trip into town (which will hopefully be as soon as possible): you can’t go wrong with anything from the Wipers.
If there was a musician that ever defined the term “his reach exceeds his grasp”, it is Patrick Stickles. But goddammit, that is partly why I love his band Titus Andronicus so much.* As a rule, double albums are bloated, overstuffed affairs, and rock operas are doubly so, and The Most Lamentable Tragedy fulfills those expectations accordingly. But Stickles has poured his heart and his soul into this epic production, and has the requisite amount of chops to prevent the whole album from falling apart. For that alone he should be commended; the good news is that Stickles should be praised not only for the audacity of the entire enterprise, but for writing several songs that rank among the band’s best work.
It is best to look at The Most Lamentable Tragedy as an attempt to rewrite the band’s entire history to this point. Not only are there several callbacks to each of the band’s previous albums (for instance, there is the continuation of the “No Future” series that dates back to their debut, The Airing of Grievances, there is also second act closer “More Perfect Union” which refers to The Monitor‘s opener “A More Perfect Union”, and “Mr. E. Mann” which bears an obvious relationship with “(I Am The) Electric Man” as well as “I’m Going Insane” with “Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)” from Local Business), but the narrative of the opera recasts many of the struggles that Stickles tackled before. Even the rock opera concept is an extension of the Relationship as Civil War metaphor that defined the concept album The Monitor, which many regard as the band’s greatest work to date. One does not have to be intimately familiar with the complete history of Titus Andronicus to enjoy the album, but as is the case with the many historical references and literary allusions that are sprinkled throughout the record, it certainly helps.
One should be fully prepared for the sprawling affair that is The Most Lamentable Tragedy just by glancing at the packaging, since the sticker announces it is a “29 song, 93 minute” opus, but even that simple declaration is playing a bit fast and loose with the facts–many of the tracks are seemingly arbitrarily cut up, and the album contains multiple “songs” of pure silence, including a seven minute “Intermission”. The term “rock opera” also should serve as a huge warning sign, as the album suffers many of the same issues that plague previous attempts at the form, namely songs that are heavier on plot than hooks and drama rather than melody. However, when Stickles indulges his most grandiose instincts, he creates some of the album’s finest moments, such as in the orchestral sweep of “More Perfect Union”. When was the last time you heard a bass clarinet in a punk song?
There are other standouts that will easily become highlights of future Titus Andronicus shows, from the furiously energetic “Dimed Out” and “Lookalike”/”I Lost My Mind” combo to the multi-part epic “(S)HE SAID/(S)HE SAID”. Another sure to be crowd favorite is the boisterous sing-along “Come On, Siobhán”, which in a change of pace for Titus recalls the Midwestern sounds of John Cougar Mellencamp instead of the standard Jersey influence of The Boss. There are enough great Titus Andronicus songs scattered throughout the record that one is tempted to separate the wheat from the chaff and stuff it onto a disc with a fifty-minute runtime instead, but that would fly in the face of the entire point of the album. It is a sprawling mess because manic depression is indeed a frustrating mess. The Most Lamentable Tragedy is what it is, flaws and all.