Arts Desk

Rally Around the Flag: Titus Andronicus at Black Cat, Discussed

Jersey rockers Titus Andronicus are on fire right now. Last year's The Monitor was one of my favorite 2010 releases, and the band has been touring non-stop since the record's release. Considering I've interviewed both Titus Andronicus and current tourmates Dinowalrus in the past, I figured ought to make it to their show together with Baltimore's Double Dagger. Last night, I went down to the Black Cat with freelance photographer and cameraman (and my bandmate) Brendan Polmer to see the action in person. Here's our post-show chat about the whole shebang.

Ryan Little: Three bands. Three killer sets. It felt good to leave a show that rocked so hard all the way through, especially considering I only knew a fraction of the songs beforehand. It seemed every band was really giving it their all, and there was a real artist-crowd connection. Had you heard any of Dinowalrus, the first band, prior to the show?

Brendan Polmer: I know, right? Actually, I hadn't heard of Dinowalrus before, but they were great fun. It felt like the songs in their set started off relatively structured and then got progressively weirder and darker—in a good way. Did you see the part at the end where the keyboardist/bassist used a strobe light as a prop/sound-altering device on stage?

RL: You know, I saw them get that strobe light out, but I must have been buying a beer when they actually used it. However, I definitely noticed the progression into weirdness as their set wore on. I saw them last year, and pretty much all of their set was bizarre, so it was really interesting to see them sound more, well, like a rock band. I think they're getting more focused, which suits them, but there's no shortage of wild, spacey sounds, which I always approve of.

The band I knew the least about, however, was Double Dagger. I knew they were a spazzy Baltimore band that lots of my friends enjoy, but I'd never heard them. Their Les Savy Fav-meets-Hold Steady minus guitar approach was a total blast.

BP: Oh man, where do I begin with Double Dagger? I agree with your Les Savy Fav comparison, but I would also add in a touch of Hunter S. Thompson in punk rock form. I was really confused at one point when I didn't see frontman Nolen Strals on stage but still heard his spastic shouts and screams coming through the speaker system. Turns out he had jumped off the stage and was in the middle of the crowd jumping around like a mad man. Everything about that band was both insane and wonderful; from the drummer's broken crash cymbal that looked like someone had taken a bite out of it, to the simple genius of the bass guitar as the sole tonal instrument of the trio.

RL: The band operates on pure charisma—I guess that's why they reminded me of Craig Finn a bit (that or the many Hold Steady T-shirts I spotted in the crowd). Watching Straals was like watching 30 Rock's Pete Hornberger on cocaine...but in a good way. It was cool to see Patrick Stickles from Titus Andronicus join them for a song, but I think Strals showed him up.

Of course, once Stickles went back to fronting his own band, all bets were off. Titus Andronicus hit the ground running and the crowd ate it up. God, it felt great to see a punk show where the audience really connected with the band. There's something really direct and gritty about that kind of intense interaction that other rock shows just can't replicate. It just felt youthful, I guess.

BP: Well, some might argue that Titus Andronicus isn't really a "punk" band—but after seeing them cover The Clash, Sham 69, and X-Ray Spex (a tribute to the late Poly Styrene), and as you mentioned the way the audience responded, I'd have to say that yeah, it was pretty punk rock. I was also really impressed with T.A.'s drummer, Eric Harm. For having such a simple setup, he really worked his snare drum to the max, giving the rowdy kids in the front a reason to jump around. I felt bad for the few that thought it would be a good idea to crowd-surf in the Black Cat, only to find themselves getting escorted out by club security.

RL: I suppose a lot of Titus Andronicus songs are just rock songs in the same way a lot of The Clash's songs are just rock songs, but it's that ferocious attitude and approach—when Stickles screams "Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!" it's hard to call it anything but punk rock...not to mention Amy Klein makes a hell of a Poly Styrene.

There's also a definite political edge to the band, considering they wrote an album about the Civil War and Stickles sports an American flag handkerchief, and it connects them to a lot of the punk history they covered. They certainly don't gloss over America's failures, and their depiction of war never approaches glamorous, but somehow they evoke chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A." from their audience. It's not a crowd you'd expect to be especially patriotic, but T.A. apparently reminds kids that loving America doesn't have to mean toting guns and quoting Sarah Palin. They tap into an underdog spirit that's as much a part of America's DNA as it is a part of punk rock, and when they encored with "If The Kids Are United," they pretty much summed it all up.

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