In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about shows we’ve seen where the opener eclipsed the headliner.
Titus Andronicus, “Fear And Loathing In Mahwah, NJ” (2008)
In my previous life as a wannabe rock critic, I tried to make my presence in a concert crowd as inconspicuous as possible. I was reviewing shows in Austin, Texas, so any number of musicians could’ve been standing over my shoulder as I took notes about their onstage counterparts. And if someone in the crowd wasn’t a musician, odds were just as good that they were another critic/reviewer/blogger. It was the late ’00s: Everybody had a blog.
But when I saw Los Campesinos and Titus Andronicus on a double bill in January of 2009, I had to introduce myself to the opening act’s frontman. For starters, Patrick Stickles was the guy manning the Titus Andronicus merch table, and I needed to fact-check the title of his set’s second-to-last song, a sloppy epic that kicked into motion after the rest of the band hollered “Fuck you!” at Stickles. But I also needed to hear that song, “Fear And Loathing In Mahwah, NJ,” on the ride home. And the next morning. And every morning after that for two months, until I no longer had any memory of what or how the headliners fared—only the glimmer of inquiring about that song, registering the Hunter S. Thompson-jacking portion of its title, and paying for a CD copy of The Airing Of Grievances.
That’s not how the evening was supposed to go. I was there for Los Campesinos, which, for a period that was as brief, energetic, and as full of brash declarations as one of the band’s songs, was my favorite (active) musical group in the world. It helped that the U.K.-based seven-piece covered and frequently name-checked what was then my favorite non-active band, Pavement; it also helped that Los Campesinos had seven goddamn members, as the band’s rise to underground prominence coincided with a time in my life when all I wanted to hear was really big bands making really big sounds. I was smitten with the self-aware, pop-obsessive POV of 2007’s Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP, and preemptively declared Hold On Now, Youngster my favorite record of 2008 after seeing the band preview it at SXSW. (The record lived up to that teaser, and I still give it a listen a couple times a year.) Seven months later, after accepting the Austin assistant city editor position at what we were then calling Decider, I eagerly snatched the promo copy of the band’s second 2008 release, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, from the office CD rack. Austin city editor Sean O’Neal had no objections.
Looking back, it makes sense that my Los Campesinos fandom burned so quickly and so intensely. Those early recordings are powered by the last gasps of youth, the anxiety of striking out on your own yet still feeling like an impostor in the face of adult responsibility. My introduction to the band came two months into a post-grad day job, which I took so I could pay rent while I spent my nights reviewing rock concerts for little-to-no pay. Los Campesinos froze juvenile indiscretion in three-minute musical snapshots that I could thumb through on an iPod, spazzy songs about drinking, dancing, and dating whose subjects were increasingly less a part of my life. I filed taxes for the first time as a Los Campesinos fan; I got engaged while We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed took up temporary residence in my car stereo. My fiancée didn’t like the band, which she believed cribbed too shamelessly from one of her favorites, Architecture In Helsinki. As rapidly as I had fallen for the band, anti-Campesino sentiment had fomented among the people I spent most of my days with.
Into this scenario entered Titus Andronicus, who performed with just as much fury as Los Campesinos, but with different motivations and ambitions. Those layers would reveal themselves to me at a later date; the night I saw both bands on the same stage, what impressed me was the way Titus Andronicus played like it was their name on the top of the ticket. I didn’t know that they’d be the type of band that I’d grow alongside, marveling at the thematic complexity of sophomore effort The Monitor, and the mellowed introspection of Local Business. That night, Titus Andronicus were just the guys who upstaged my favorite band.
One of my favorite Los Campesinos lyrics states, “Four sweaty boys with guitars tell me nothing about my life.” But when Los Campesinos started saying less about my life, I was grateful for the perspiring guitar-slingers of Titus Andronicus.