Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Concert Review: Lucero/Titus Andronicus

Off Broadway, St. Louis, MO, 4/9/09

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It's all fun and games until two chicks get into a fight and even the band onstage comments about it. Such was the atmosphere as Lucero slogged through their headlining set at Off Broadway on a rainy Thursday night in St. Louis. Playing to a capacity crowd that consisted of an odd mix of obvious Lucero fans (trucker hats on heads and Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys clutched to hands) and indie kids looking like drowned hoody-wearing rats, the band definitely delighted its hardcore contingent of dedicated fans, cat fights be damned.

Yet the veteran band was completely upstaged by opening act Titus Andronicus, a band that hails from Glen Rock, New Jersey and has been receiving a borderline-psychotic amount of critical praise for their debut album The Airing Of Grievances. Playing St. Louis for the second time in just a few months (the band opened for Los Campesinos! in February), the band tore through most of the album in a manically aggressive and wonderfully ear-numbing 40-minute set. Though Grievances is far from polished - its lo-fi production at times recalls bands like Galaxie 500 and Neutral Milk Hotel - it does contain catchy and insistent melodies amid all the fracas and righteous outrage. The band's performance went one step further, bludgeoning any hints of subtlety with a few guitars, drums, keyboards and an occasional harmonica.

Several songs featured keyboards more prominently than their album counterparts from Grievances. This approach started with opening song "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus'" and was repeated on both "My Time Outside The Womb" and "Joset Of Nazareth's Blues," with lead vocalist Patrick Stickles a bundle of twitches and spasms as he pounded away on his keyboards or guitar. Other songs were built around more pronounced backing vocals, especially on "No Future Part Two: The Days After No Future," where Stickles' vocals approximated something between howling and barking. The band closed with album opener "Fear And Loathing In Mahwah, NJ," its few lines of lyrics seemingly spat out quickly so that the band could explode one more time. But enough of these dry bullshit technical details; simply put, the band must be seen live to be truly appreciated. On this particular night Titus Andronicus alternated between moments of bottled-up tension and release that the album approximates, especially on "No Future." It was an unpredictable mixture of seemingly choreographed moments - some well-timed jumps and guitar-faces-of-pain on both "Titus Andronicus" and "Titus Andronicus Forever," for example - and moments where it looked like the band could go off the rails at any point. It was a tightrope walk between sloppiness and precision from a band whose live show here was like a jack-booted kick upside the head. And that's a good thing.

After a brief break Lucero took the stage, still looking like the motley collection of tattooed badasses you've either been warned about or aspire to become. From the onset it was obvious the vibe had changed; whereas Titus Andronicus was likely largely unknown to at least some of those in attendance and played accordingly, Lucero essentially acted as the master of ceremonies for a massive community sing-along. The band and its blend of punk-country has always inspired a fanatical (wait...dedicated) following, so perhaps this was to be expected. All the trademarks of the standard Lucero show were present: raised and pumping fists, Ben Nichols' countrified and scratchy-voiced drawl, tons of requests from the audience, at least one intoxicated moron repeatedly muscling people out of his way in the pit, and big fat anthemic guitar riffs. Still the band's set lacked passion and energy, with the exception of the pre-fight entertainment of "Nights Like These" and a driving version of "Sixteen." The band as a whole remained largely stationary for most of the night, which made them seem even more sedate after Titus Andronicus' furious performance. Though the jacked-up crowd clearly enjoyed itself, too often it felt like Lucero was simply preaching to the converted, where both audience and musicians were simply going through the motions of what they are each expected to do in such an environment.

Certainly the lousy sound didn't help Lucero's case either. Though the mix was far from perfect for Titus Andronicus, it still fit the band's aesthetic and the lyrics were about as intelligible as they are on Grievances. Take that for what it's worth. Nichols' vocals remained buried in the murk for much of the night, a disappointment since much of what makes albums like Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers and Tennessee worthwhile are the singer's ragged yet emotive vocals. If you didn't know the words going in, you sure as hell weren't going to learn them now. The cult of Lucero likely went home happy, but for those who don't quite get what the fuss and singular dedication from fans is all about, it's doubtful that this performance convinced them.

Lucero always bring a workmanlike professionalism to their shows; they've been touring relentlessly for years and know the ropes. Yet sometimes such an approach is overshadowed by a band that's rough around the edges and isn't note-perfect. Lucero's legion of fans may have had an enjoyable time Thursday night, but Titus Andronicus delivered a performance that showed why so many music fans and critics are going batshit crazy for them.

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