Few bands in rock 'n' roll make albums as ambitious as Titus Andronicus does. Named after Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy, the New Jersey band based one concept album on the U.S. Civil War and its latest work is a 29-track, 93-minute rock opera about a man with bipolar disorder -— an illness singer-bandleader Patrick Stickles struggles with.
If anything, they're even more ambitious onstage than they are on record. Performing Friday night at Trees, Titus Andronicus poured every last ounce of spit and zeal into its hour-and-45-minute set.
Stickles began the show by walking onstage solo, looking like the Unabomber with his bird's nest beard, and quietly talking about the band's previous Dallas gigs and the importance of respectful slam-dancing. As soon as his five band-mates appeared, he hit the gas pedal. Screaming and howling until snot flew out of his nose, Stickles went into full-blown angst-ridden suburban punk-rocker mode, complete with the occasional slide into a fake British accent.
The music was like an explosion at the record store, with shards of the Ramones, the Pogues and the Replacements ricocheting through every other song. "Lonely Boy," from the new rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy, swaggered like Bowie in his glam-boogie days. "Still Life With Hot Deuce And Silver Platter" was high-throttle power-pop at its best.
An intentionally sloppy version of the Eagles' "Take It Easy" was forgettable on several counts — Stickles tipped his hat to hometown boy Don Henley even though "Easy" is sung by Glenn Frey. But the band had better luck with its roughhewn cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" when the song took a comic turn into improvised hip-hop.
Like all good Jersey rockers, Titus Andronicus also borrowed a trick or three from Bruce Springsteen, nicking the melody from "The Promised Land" for one song, and paying homage to "Born to Run" in "A More Perfect Union."
"Tramps like us — baby we were born to die!" Stickles sang, as Adam Reich blasted out a buzz-saw guitar solo.
At its best, Titus resembled the E Street Band with its hammy theatrics and its knack for songs that built to giant crescendos. The more passionate Titus Andronicus got, the crazier fans got, until half the audience turned into one big swirling mosh pit.
When Stickles and company finally goodnight, they didn't return for an encore, which was just as well. If you've given everything you've got the first time, there's no reason to come back for seconds.
Thor Christensen is a Dallas writer and critic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org