Dead-centre of the crowd at Hare and Hounds tonight, swaying drunkenly amongst everyone in a sloppy personally-assigned dance area, invading many a spectator’s space, is a guy who looks like 80s Weird Al Yankovic, albeit plus-sized. Permed hair, moustache and signature Hawaiian shirt, but no glasses – perhaps without the glasses people won’t find it odd that he’s still wearing a Halloween costume nearly a fortnight later. Some people like his presence but others whisper, they move out of the way, they stare blankly. What is happening? What has this rotund parody-musician impersonator got to do with Titus Andronicus? Clearly it’s an atmospheric detail that is being used metaphorically as a summation of the night, but how? Read on.
Having released the critically acclaimed You Can Do Better 18 months ago and with a new album on the horizon, JOHNNY FOREIGNER’s low-billing tonight seems to be so the band can test-run material in a live-setting without too much expectation. So if the audience are expecting ‘Le Sigh’ or ‘Eyes Wide Terrified’, bad luck. While a set consisting of entirely unheard material is somewhat alienating, said material is mercifully high quality, rife with the Cap N’ Jazz tempo shifts, guitar histrionics and yappy yelping one has come to expect from the band. They even continue their habit of referencing Birmingham landmarks in song titles with ‘Show Me the Way to Grand Central’, while the hammering Helmet-sized riff that closes ‘Long Important Ironic Title’ points to interesting new directions. As a way of apology they end with a runthrough of lone-oldie ‘Criminals’, the faithful gladly shouting along to its still all-too-relevant “Your town’s run by criminals” slogan refrain.
WASHINGTON IRVING are a chaotic indie rock band from Scotland. They blend soaring, sky-scrapingly immersive instrumental passages that recall Explosions in the Sky with raw-throated often chanted vocals that sound like a Glaswegian Anti-Flag. It is a shame that the between song banter is not of the same quality, rarely have the mid-set pauses seemed so unbearably awkward. It felt like the applauses increased in length throughout the set solely in an attempt to delay singer Joe Black’s unentertaining anecdotes and intense dead-eyed jokes. It’s hard to empathise with a singer that is holding attention at metaphorical gunpoint. But the band occasionally used a mandolin, an instrument so rarely seen live that it more than makes up for the inept crowd interaction and arguably overlong set – swings and roundabouts.
Headliners TITUS ANDRONICUS are a challenging concept – a punk rock band with a passion for clued-in over-arcing narratives, beyond that of Green Day’s pseudo-political plotting-by-numbers, but less meta and self-referential than Fucked Up. 2010’s landmark The Monitor was a concept album that dealt with the American Civil War, while this year’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a five-act rock-opera following the dream-like saga of a man and his doppelgänger, all being an extended metaphor for manic depression. With such far reaching ambition comes diverse influence from Neutral Milk Hotel, The Replacements and Born To Run-era Springsteen and exposition-filled songs that rarely dip below five minutes in length. It is important, vital music but penetrability is an issue.
Starting out accompanied only by his keyboardist, in classic Broadway fashion, the heroically bearded Patrick Stickles eloquently greets the crowd before beginning a stark bare-bones version of “Upon Viewing Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus””. Soon his band join him to blast out a ramshackle punk explosion as he spits out his intricate narration. There is energy, there is passion, there is superb musicianship. Sadly, from the crowd, there is also some bewildered whispers, blank faces and people leaving never to return. Admittedly, choruses are a crutch, but they are a way to get people involved, as is shown with the airings of “Fatal Flaw”, a breakneck “Dimed Out” and a sloppily fun cover of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down”; the set overall suffers from a lack of crowd participation. This is the difference between pop and art; art never needs to comprise to get its message across which, while noble, there’s less of a market for art. An end-stretch appearance of “A More Perfect Union” gets those that remain moving and chanting, but for the most part Titus Andronicus are like Fat Weird Al: alienating, awkward and just plain confusing.