Three things I know, before I walk into this Okkervil River/Titus Andronicus show: I like Will Sheff, I don’t like Terminal 5, and punk music, broadly conceived, remains a mystery to me.
It’s no great revelation that Terminal 5, as a place to see a concert, is pretty miserable. An enormous space used as inefficiently as architecturally possible, it’s also Bowery Presents’ most far-flung venue, located in (far) west Midtown. There aren’t many good spots in the building to see the stage, and no crafty tricks for finding those spots.
Nevertheless, audiences brave the unfortunate dimensions and the ubiquitous view-obstructing pillars, in anticipation of two particularly charismatic and literary acts, the sort that inspire genuine feeling in all but the most curmudgeonly of concertgoers. And lo and behold, we are not disappointed.
Northern New Jersey natives Titus Andronicus have been a reference point of mine for a while. They make punk music, by all accounts very smart and anthemic punk music, the sort that certain tasteful people highly recommend.
But nonetheless, punk music is an insular genre that requires of its listeners a broad jump into an art form that, to the uninitiated, sounds a lot like three chords, loudly and repetitively strummed. So if you don’t like punk music, you probably won’t bother with Titus Andronicus. This turns out to be lazy and reductive -- I don’t like punk music, and Titus Andronicus rock.
Much of their set was from last year’s roundly praised The Monitor, which is ostensibly about the Civil War but is really about the angst and the age-old us-vs.-them dynamic.
And that album, which on headphones never quite reached me, flourishes in a live setting: frontman Patrick Stickles is a tremendously engaging on-stage persona, and his between-song asides make his perversely honest lyrics quite a bit more palatable. And Titus Andronicus is, it turns out, a very proficient live band, putting on an incredibly tight performance in spite of Terminal 5’s bizarre acoustics.
It's also the ideal opener for Okkervil River, a band that resonates only if you’re willing to engage with Sheff’s lyrics emotionally and cast aside cynicism. Which, after Titus’ rousing, unifying set, I am totally willing to do.
And Okkervil River, given a supportive and lightly buzzed audience, does not disappoint. It’s an audience-friendly setlist: the band comes out with guns blazing, with a standout cut “White Shadow Waltz” from their most recent album I Am Very Far and concert staple “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene,” from their high-water mark The Stage Names, before ramping things back down a bit with “A Girl in Port.”
Stage Names tracks, pretty predictably, get the biggest response, and Sheff’s got the good sense to include a fair number of them, including my personal favorite, “John Allyn Smith Sets Sail.” At which point everyone on the floor goes berserk, and so he’s got the whole crowd eating out of his hand for the subsequent solo acoustic performance of “The Stone,” maybe Sheff’s most verbosely brilliant lyric ever.
All in all, it’s a commendably honest event, a true rock-and-roll concert by dudes singing, not tritely, about rock-and-roll. By the time 11 p.m. — and thus the close of business for weekday concerts at Terminal 5 — rolls around, Sheff knows he’s run out of time and cuts to the chase, whipping everyone into a white-hot frenzy with closer “Unless Its Kicks.”