Ted Leo, Titus Andronicus, So So Glos
Monday, November 21
Better than: Getting into another political argument on Tumblr.
In honor of last night’s benefit for the National Lawyers Guild at Shea Stadium, the letters “OWS,” for “Occupy Wall Street,” were haphazardly applied to the wall behind the stage in black tape, the “O” specifically incomplete. The PA played radical punk, metal and hip-hop that was socially recognizable—communal, even. When Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack” trickled out of the speakers, a horizon line of mutual unconscious headbanging sprang up.
Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles looked gaunt and crazed as he walked across the stage, courting the unselfconscious space between complete wild engagement and weird sensitive coiling. He encouraged the crowd to go wild but within responsible terms, quoting Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie”: “To live outside the law/ You must be honest.”
Two minutes into their first song, which grew inexorably from a slow acoustic shuffle into unearned, linear bombast, Stickles yelled “Fuck!” The crowd surged. The crashing was big and incredible, a mass of pink chemical aggression, but it had been also weirdly manipulated. Later, to induce a calm moment, Stickles moaned over a keyboard figure for a few minutes; there were two lighters in the air. “This isn’t a Fugazi concert or anything—we’re all adults here,” Stickles said at one point. (His digression emphasized safety from destruction of property and other human beings, which are paramount at Fugazi shows; you are never less of an adult then when you are allowed to inhabit an ecstatic irresponsibility.)
Listening to and experiencing Titus Andronicus is like observing from within the ribcage of a dead and stripped giant animal. It is impressively empty, and there is an inarticulate prehistoric distance that is impossible to bridge. The band seems to want to assess tremendous American lore (in their specific case, the Civil War) in the microcosm of New Jersey, which would be a fine idea if it felt like they did any of the work to realize it.
Near the end of Titus’s set, someone requested a drinking song. “This is not a song about fucking drinking,” replied Stickles, agitated. “This is a song about fucking justice.” Titus launched into a brash and unsubtle cover of “I Fought the Law,” and then invited Ted Leo and So So Glos vocalist Alex Levine to play Billy Bragg’s “To Have and To Have Not,” the chorus of which was exchanged among the frontmen: “Just because you’re better than me/ Doesn’t mean I’m lazy/ Just because you’re going forwards/ Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards.”
Ideas about Occupy Wall Street were in the air, foremost among them the political idea of consistency. In occupying a specific location for a lengthy period of time, protesters effectively buried themselves in a national conversation and physically articulated their willingness to stick to their guns. “You know how old I am?” Leo rhetorically asked the crowd. “You know how many marches I’ve been on? I get home and I feel great and two days later any media presence evaporates.”
The stability of the movement seemed at odds with the instability of the show; Leo’s set was loud and unhinged, a predominantly tight band combating sickness and wild sound. “How are you guys doing?” Leo asked at one point; “I’m not at 100 percent tonight,” he later admitted. Regardless, there was a charm in the loose, untangled way Leo’s set hinged on anomie. The bass frequency hummed from what seemed at that point a blown speaker.
Leo had completely degraded vocally but regardless returned for an encore that included songs about the marginalized working class, among them Uncle Tupelo’s “Whiskey Bottle” and Chumbawumba’s “I Never Gave Up.” Between songs, he further assessed the Occupy Wall Street movement, and its ideological successes. “A lot of people have been singing and talking about a lot of issues for a long time,” Leo said, bright and tired. “It’s great that we finally found that modality.”
Critical bias: I may or may not have been in the pit for half of Ted Leo’s set.
Overheard: The sad-looking punk with toilet paper in his ears can probably double as a sign of how hard it was to hear people.
Random notebook dump: Shea Stadium is a reminder of the weird unpopulated air that prevails in some desolate and extinct Brooklyn sections. Inside is loft with punk basement pretensions—hard, unyielding floors, a conscious wear in everything from persistent disuse, a tremendous amount of space that is quickly peopled and forgotten. There are also significant ideas about the Mets here—the name, the logo painted on the wall. It feels like a lost, admired space.