On a viciously gelid Baltimore evening, as President Bush was giving his long-awaited farewell address on what would have been Martin Luther King’s 80th birthday, a gaggle of rail-thin hoodie-clad white kids crammed into Baltimore’s Ottobar for some life-affirming, pain-gratifying indie rock, the kind that renews your faith in both indie and rock as something more than hollow marketing terms. Two Pitchfork-approved, Ritalin-hungry indie triumphs of 2008, Los Campesinos! and Titus Andronicus, opened their tour in Charm City, with plenty of their signature hyper-catchy shout-along odes to youthful disenchantment.
The night began with a bang, literally. Thanks to singer Patrick Stickles’ acrobatic showboating, Titus Andronicus blew out an amp on the raucous first song. That didn’t deter their feverish, aggressive set, a sweaty, boozy rampage of chaotic, clattering punk-rock: frantic, heart-pounding thrills with none of the meandering pretense that sometimes mars their album tracks.
They attacked the stage with the urgency of guys racing against the clock, as though cramming every ounce of energy into the musical equivalent of a night-before-rehab bender. Though the witty lyrics were pretty much indecipherable, the harmonica-mad “Titus Andronicus” and an unrecognizable-yet-still-awesome cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” burst forward with furious vitality, psyching the pre-headliner crowd into preliminary pogo mode. The deafening, hard-charging music was at odds with the band’s soft-spoken onstage banter, which included self-deprecating tangents on baseball cards and pleas for a floor to sleep on. Titus Andronicus rocked harder than any band named after a Shakespeare play has the right.
Los Campesinos! were not as loud, but every bit as passionate. Even with Neil Campesino! under the weather (reducing septet to sextet), and Gareth Campesino! in fading voice, the band put on an appropriately dramatic, ardent show. Shaggy and scrawny, with his wavy blond hair and eyes of lost-puppy innocence befitting songs of innocence betrayed, Gareth Campesino! asserted himself a modern pop miserabilist. He banged on percussive instruments as if they were Mommy’s pots and pans, twisted knobs like a boy with a remote control car, and spat out his breathless webs of wounded verbiage as every life in the room depended on them (which they kind of did). Even when climbing the rafters during “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks,” he seemed reaching for some unattainable goal, chasing the dreams he’s been told to chase all his life, to no avail. A spastic teen pouting at the realization that love sucks and life isn’t much better, Gareth Campesino! is a poster boy for Gen-Y ennui, his prodigiously melodic tantrums a litany of pop culture’s broken promises, indictments of how superheroes and romcoms have lied to us all.
Content at her keyboard, Aleksandra Campesino!’s reserved gyrations contrasted Gareth’s movements as much as her stoic voice contrasted his vocal histrionics. Neither reassuring nor condescending, she was the kind of unavailable maternal surrogate that seems to dominate Gareth’s failed relationships, thus rendering their interplay a curious microcosm of indie gender wars. The rest of the band grooved and pounded with defiant resolve, not just supporting but identifying with Gareth’s woe. But only shirtless, sweat-soaked drummer Ollie Campesino! dared match Gareth’s off-the-wall bombast.
Unlike with Titus, there were a couple peaks and valleys in the Campesinos! set. The bubblegum bursts were not non-stop; instead, a couple stellar songs (“All Your Kayfabe Friends,” “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives”) received anemic renditions. Furthermore, the audience often left the band’s pleas for singalongs unseized (as on “Death to Los Campesinos!”), as though not quite believing the too-emotional-for-emo sermons at hand. The most riveting performance, “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats,” was saved for a too-brief encore, where the night’s steady jumping finally turned into moshing, and the kids finally joined Gareth in shouting at the world because the world doesn’t love them.
(Photos: Oliver Peel @ Konzerttagebuch.de)