Mississippi Studios, Portland, OR

Though the albums of Titus Andronicus have always varied somewhat in quality, the band’s live shows tend to offer punk catharsis in abundance. This is a band that managed to turn in a Civil War concept album packed to the gills with chant-worthy hooks about being a loser and the war of us v. them—it shouldn’t be a surprise that the live version is one of the better sweaty romps you can put yourself through. The last time I was able to see the band, they opened with a punishingly slow rendition of Local Business-cut “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With the Flood of Detritus”—a move that felt strange, but turned out to be a harbinger. Nearly two years later, in support of the fine-but-messy A Productive Cough, Titus Andronicus is touring as an “acoustic” duo.

This was not a true acoustic show because Patrick Stickles is still playing with electric guitars, and for special moments, there will be some pretty solid guitar noise. But for the bulk of the set, Stickles—accompanied by pianist Alex Molini—played the songs clean. This is not just a willful dismissal of what an “acoustic” show is (it’s blatantly not acoustic, but it’s still never that far off), but also a gleeful deconstruction of what a punk band can do.

A few songs in, I had to wonder if this experiment was going to turn out to be a successful one. Stickles’ songwriting ability is part of what makes Titus Andronicus such a strong band, but when stripped of most other musical elements, the performance begins to feel like a slog. I found myself wishing that they’d really run with this “acoustic” tour notion and truly unplug, instead of playing an electric guitar clean. Rather than deconstructing what makes these songs tick by reframing them with a different instrument, what we’re left with is a live set’s worth of songs with a lot of teeth removed.

Some of these songs worked well; I’d argue that the show reached its high point during The Monitor’s “Four Score and Seven,” which is impressive considering the fact that Stickles and Molini manage to make the nearly nine-minute quasi-epic still feel compelling even in its diminished state. Others, like the aforementioned “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape” and, honestly, all of the A Productive Cough cuts played during the set, really lacked the power required to make these songs work.

There were plenty of wonderful moments during the show, of course—going from The Monitor’s “Theme from Cheers” to the actual theme from “Cheers,” which flowed into Eartha Kitt’s “Lilac Wine” and Tom Waits’ “Better Off Without a Wife,” was nothing short of electrifying—but the entire affair left me feeling unfulfilled. The biggest disappointment comes down to the fact that this tour is meant to support an album that, while uneven at best, is still an record that would clearly be more interesting when performed by a stageful of sweaty guys with drums and FX pedals. Titus Andronicus is a band that doesn’t seem interested in staying quiet for long, and one can only hope a full-band tour comes soon after this stripped-down duo configuration. When they do, I’ll still be there—hopefully, so will a drummer.

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