Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Show Review: Titus Andronicus, Hallelujah The Hills, and Bomb The Music Industry! at Lilly's Pad 7.10.10

The experience of going to a sold out show isn't one that I've had too often in the indie rock world. It's usually me and a handful of other dudes, quietly sipping $14 Jack & Cokes in the back of some 300 person venue while the guy on stage twiddles with knobs and shoves contact mics in his ears. It's a valuable experience, but it's nevertheless underwhelming on some level. On Saturday night, Lilly's Pad was packed. Actually, it was beyond packed. It was so thoroughly filled with enthusiastic fans that any small motion in the sea of bodies created a ripple effect that produced a de facto mosh pit in the center of the room. Despite the venue's strict policies against crowd surfing, a couple dudes (and one brave young lady) couldn't help but catch some waves. And all this within the first minute of the opening band.

I was a huge fan of Titus Andronicus going into the show, and had premiered a digital 7-inch with Hallelujah the Hills on The Ampeater Review, but Bomb The Music Industry! was a complete (and completely thrilling) surprise. I don't spend much time on the punk/ska scene, so my basis for comparisons is severely limited. That said, I like what these guys do and I like how they do it. Setting aside the band's overt message of "fuck the man, man" for just a second, it's immediately apparent how much these guys enjoy themselves, and it rubs off on their fans. It took them a good fifteen minutes of futzing on stage to get going with a downbeat, during which time I would normally have solidified my opinion of the band ("Who are these wankers?") and zoned out to daydreams of Titus Andronicus, but for some reason I couldn't take my eyes or ears off these goofy-ass dudes. Between snippits of Franz Ferdinand and Stevie Wonder, they playfully argued about football chants, and reminded one another with rolled eyes, "Guys, be professional". When they did finally start playing, the crowd immediately began to sing along, and the band's infectious energy created a closed circuit with the audience that pretty much electrified the entire room. Members of the band flung themselves at random into the crowd, taking mics and mic stands with them, while hoards of teenagers pushed together for the chance to shout a string of lyrics over the PA. Remarkably, every band on the bill brought a horn section, which is a damn powerful tool in the right hands. BTMI! killed it with their full band setup of two trombones, two guitars, bass, and drums. The bone lines were solid and unclich├ęd while remaining true to form. Their sound constantly wavers between punk and ska, and the trick is in the balance. Rhythmic horn lines tag team with half-spoken half-screaming vocals to lend each song a consistent but unpredictable structure.

A good percentage of the crowd came exclusively to see BTMI!, and the demographic changed a bit after their set. The indie set that arrived for Hallelujah the Hills was a bit older, but just as ready to rock their asses off. Both BTMI! and Hallelujah The Hills reach that same pinnacle of sonic frenzy that makes a concert truly worthwhile, but each arrives at it differently. While BTMI! starts each song at 100%, drops to about 60% two thirds of the way through and cranks it up to 110% 'till the end, Hallelujah The Hills takes their time. Each composition has a unique shape to it, building over multiple verses to that perfect moment, in which the sun could explode into a billion pieces and you'd hardly think to notice. Almost as an exhibition of this musical philosophy, their set began with a patient crescendo, starting with bass and drums and slowly adding guitars and vocals. Hallelujah The Hills are masters of suspense, and their lush brand of indie rock is almost orchestral in its arrangement and execution. There's an epic quality to everything they do, and the set at large benefited from the same careful arc that's found on a smaller scale within each song. If there's one thing that I'm a sucker for, and I mean a real sucker for, it's unison singing. When a band lets it rip, and everyone just belts out some simple and confident chorus, I start writing things like "ZOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG" in my little orange notebook. Seriously. But not all unison choruses are created equal, and some bands rush the effect and squelch it. Not Hallelujah The Hills. These guys relish the moment and luxuriate in its grandeur. A boy couldn't ask for more. Homeless in New Haven, the band ended up crashing at my place after the show. Musical topics ranged from Beach House and Public Enemy to Anthony Braxton and Plastic People of the Universe. Hallelujah The Hills are a remarkably diverse group of musicians, and it shows in their music. Influences stretch from classic rock to serialism, and it all contributes to their stellar songwriting, expressive musicianship, and phenomenal live show.

Hallelujah The Hills and Titus Andronicus could be two sides of the same musical coin, like brothers separated at birth if HTH went to college and to study composition and Titus sold drugs to teenagers under the bridge. Titus went into this show as my favorite band, and emerged as my favorite band times a million times infinity + 2. The assault of two keyboards, two guitars, bass, drums, vocals, trombone, trumpet, cello, and electric violin is almost overwhelming by itself, but add in a crowd of several hundred people singing along to every single word, and you've got yourself a rock and roll concert. This is the show I always imagined seeing when contemplating moving to New York City years ago. New Haven 1, New York 0. If Hallelujah The Hills writes "epic" songs, then Titus Andronicus writes "anthemic" songs, and if sports teams had any balls, they'd cut "We Will Rock You" and replace it with "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ". Any song that gives an entire room an excuse to shout "FUCK YOU" in unison (remember how I feel about unison vocals) deserves a fucking medal. Patrick Stickles is one of the legendary front men of rock and roll. He has the messianic persona of a Jim Morrison without the severe detriment of actually having to be Val Kilmer, I mean, Jim Morrison. There's an intellectualism to Titus Andronicus, but not the kind that results in pretension and apathy--on the contrary, every note of every song is infused with so much passion and ardor that I'm amazed he has any energy to stand let alone speak after a show. I can't imagine ever having that much in me to give, and Stickles does it night after night. Amazing. At a break in the fray he turned to the audience and asked, "Did you guys like how it started kinda quiet and then got louder? Did you guys like that? Good, because for the remainder of the evening every song's gonna be like that." Like Hallelujah The Hills, Titus Andronicus believes in the slow build, but theirs is a steady one. While HTH is prone to play tricks with that beautiful moment of clarity, Titus projects its location as clearly as possible. Somehow, knowing that a song's gonna get awesome and knowing when it's gonna get awesome but nevertheless having to wait is even more tantalizing than leaving it a surprise. This is the unarticulated schema of rock & roll that when actually brought to bear on the music tends only to strip it of some essential dignity, so for that I guess I'm sorry--I just can't help myself. I'm sure Titus Andronicus doesn't write songs by analyzing the effect of dynamic structure on test subjects in a controlled environment, but hey, they know what sounds good, they do it, and it works.

Their set began with "A More Perfect Union," and a more perfect opening song I cannot imagine. The track list wound through The Monitor and The Airing of Grievances and then hit upon a special moment with an extended version of "To Old Friends and New" featuring Ryan Walsh from Hallelujah The Hills on vocals. When bands with so much energy take a second to slow things down, it becomes immediately apparent whether they have complete control over the crowd, or whether people just came to jump around, and the band only happens to be providing accompaniment. Saturday's Titus fans were as happy to sway as they were to mosh, and I think the band somehow saw this and correctly recognized it as a tribute to their music and message. It's one of the few ways that a room full of people can show their respect to a band they love, and the crowd at Lilly's Pad came through. The set wound to a close with a megajam rendition of "Titus Andronicus Forever," as trumpet, keyboard, and drums ripped through solos of 12 bar blues Johnny B. Goode style. At moments it seemed as though they might reluctantly slip into Wipeout (as they've been known to do live on occasion), but the band held it together through the drum solo without so much as a quote. I have to say, if the greatest disappointment of the evening was that Titus Andronicus didn't play "Wipeout," (which is tantamount to asking The Ramones to play "Freebird"), this show will go down in memory as one of the best live concert experiences I've ever had. Period. Titus Andronicus is just one of those bands, one of the great ones. I only hope that whatever Bacchic muse is driving their tour bus brings them back from the Pitchfork Music Festival in one piece, 'cause I gotta go see 'em again. And again. And again.

View the full set of photos at Mandee P. Photography
Shitty cell phone pics by Manic Mark


Brushback said...

These reviews are fascinating, if completely nothing else.

Unknown said...

Great review. I had trouble putting this show into words, but you nailed it. It was an incredible night.