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Jersey? Sure!: Titus Andronicus at Valentine’s.

Photo: Joe Putrock

A Bloody Good Time

By David King

Titus Andronicus

Valentine’s, July 12

Who are Titus Andronicus? If you are familiar only with their latest, critically praised release The Monitor, you might think the band spend their days watching Ken Burns documentaries, their evenings listening to Terry Gross interview Doris Kearns Goodwin. Those may in fact be some of the band’s kinks, as The Monitor is a concept album loosely based on the Civil War. But at Valentine’s on Monday night the band proved they are just regular kids in love with rock & roll, looking for someplace to direct their suburban angst.

Lead singer Patrick Stickle quickly allayed fears that he and his band take themselves too seriously when he introduced the band’s “diss track,” “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ” by weighing in on the diss tracks by Jay-Z and Nas. (Stickle favored Jay-Z.) When the crowd began to argue, the singer quietly reminded them that he had already said his piece, and began to rock.

Like a punk-rock Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band or a suburban-New Jersey Dropkick Murphys, Titus Andro-nicus have a formula of sorts for conservative-but-heroic guitar rock. It generally involves Stickle croaking in a broken-blues moan, off-key and hoarse, over cello, keys, violin and lightly strummed guitar. Then the distortion ramps up. A punk freak-out happens, and finally the band storm into a full-on, classical American march-type theme. It’s angry Americana, and it works a lot of the time. Parts of the formula fell apart at Valentine’s, thanks to the hardcore band playing downstairs; all subtlety was lost in the mix. But when the full assault was unleashed the band delivered a stomping punk-rock march that was both moving and incensing.

Instrumentalist Amy Klein showed off her versatility, switching from Gibson guitar to violin and back again while hopping up and down and kicking her feet. Unfortunately, drummer Eric Harm came off as barely competent at some points in the show. But it may not have been his fault, as the band’s starts and stops and pregnant pauses left him galumphing into time with the rest of the many instruments—they heaped on more guest players as the night went along.

The band got parts of the crowd moving; others stood seemingly unsure how to process the band’s intentions. Stickle invited the crowd to clap along—that’s basically what this band is for, to rile crowds up into a clapping, stomping frenzy—but he had an ironic sort of apathy about this request. “Don’t look to me as a figure of authority,” he said to no one in particular. “But you’re Batman!” someone in the crowd shouted back, pointing to Stickle’s classic black and yellow Batman shirt. “No, I’m not Batman,” he responded simply. “I’m just an admirer.”

Stickle shrugged off his apathy to spill his bleeding heart into “Four Score and Seven,” pleading “This is a war we can’t win/After 10,000 years, it’s still us against them/And my heroes have always died at the end/So who’s going to account for these sins?”

On “Titus Andronicus Forever” the band finished the audience off with their irreverent, shouted chorus of “The enemy is everywhere!” It was clear the band is ready for a fight; it’s just not clear against whom, or why they want it. And the fact that they still haven’t shaken off their suburban apathy comes across pretty heavy.

Maybe that’s who Titus Andronicus really are—bored but gifted suburban kids still toying with the influence of their heroes. If so, they are a decent and interesting band. But with any luck they will eventually kill their own heroes, drop the apathy and become an entirely more interesting and original band that can really mean something to American music

 

In A Funk

George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic

Northern Lights, July 9

I’m told I got funked by George Clinton on Thursday night, but something really didn’t feel right about it. That was hard to believe, because the man I was told was doing the funking didn’t look anything at all like the George Clinton I’ve come to know and love. There were no dreadlocks or grey beard; instead, this supposed Clinton had a short, dark, black goatee, and wore an off-kilter, black baseball cap, and a shirt emblazoned with the image of his formerly white-haired, dreadlock-headed self. To make matters more confusing, one of the members of Parliament Funkadelic held up a sign during the early numbers of their gig that read “To each his clone.”

“WTF?” summed up my feelings. And I wasn’t the only one. A number of crowd members wondered openly when George would actually appear. At one point, after being informed that Clinton was onstage and had been for some time, I felt embarrassed—until I overheard a young woman ask the man on the soundboard where George was. “I thought he was back in the bus,” the soundman told her, “but they’re telling me now he shaved off his dreads and that’s him. I don’t know what’s going on, and I work here.”

But the funk bombs were being dropped, and it was Clinton doing the dropping. Was it silly that I didn’t know that Clinton changed his look? No. Was it silly that it affected my take on the show? Yes. But it had this effect on a lot of people.

Aside from the identity confusion, the performance varied from good to terrible. The five-minute scat line on Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” was obnoxious. The impressive high notes hit by the gorgeous Kim Manning on the same song would have been more tolerable had the microphone not belted back with high-pitched squeals of its own every time she sang.

The atmosphere at Northern Lights was also a bit off. I expected unity and celebration and all that good funk stuff. Instead it felt more like an OTB parlor, full of overly goatee’d, smelly drunk guys starting fights, and women wearing summer dresses that didn’t really fit.

When the band came together with the vocalists, the guitars kicked in, and the bass line snapped like a rubber band, everything worked perfectly. But when the band dribbled along, eating up time, things seemed to come undone. The guitar work on “Maggot Brain” was an emotional apex of an otherwise wacky performance, but most of the band were off stage at the time. When they returned to dish out “Atomic Dog” they were back in unison, dropping the funk harder than ever. Then “Give Up the Funk” started well, but the band’s meandering was overtaken by feedback, and by the missed vocal notes that dominated the majority of the opening numbers.

Earlier, an angry drunk kid who had been ejected from the show did his best to get back at the security guards by declaring, “The funny thing is none of you even know what reggae is.” I thought it funny at the time because it was pretty clear we were at a funk show. But later, his words came back to haunt me. Maybe I don’t even know what good funk is—perhaps I’m a fugazi who only has a soft spot for George Clinton because Dr. Dre was all over the MTVs when I was a kid. That may be true, but I still think I can tell whether I’ve been funked at a show or just plain . . . well, you know.

—David King


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