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Titus Andronicus, Spider Bags, and Baked: a night at the Biltmore with bev davies

6 October 2015

Good photos by bev davies
Bad photos (Patrick in the cage) by Allan MacInnis

It’s probably easier for photographers than music journalists to deal with bands as they get older. Taking pictures requires less research, for one thing: it doesn’t matter if you can pin down the generic references, styles, song titles and so forth in order to be able to point a camera at something happening on stage and capture a moment. Hell, you don’t even have to know the names of the bands if you don’t want to. Writers have a bit more homework to do, if they want to do the job half-right…

…so I’m just a bit jealous of bev davies (she prefers a lower case name). She’s been around a lot longer than I have. I don’t exactly know her age, but – neverminding her vintage photos of D.O.A. and other Vancouver punk bands – she’s been on the scene long enough, for instance, that Philip K. Dick hung out with her (see also here ) when he was detoxing in Vancouver, or, before that, to have known a pre-fame Neil Young when he was a young ambitious musician in Ontario, with bev narrowly missing out on going on a famous road trip that Neil took. She’s paid her dues, and works hard to do what she does, it’s true, but when we went to see Baked, Spider Bags, and Titus Andronicus at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver, B.C., on October 3rd, all she had to do was negotiate the mosh pit long enough to take pictures (and then sort through them later). Me, I had been doing homework for the show for two weeks, and while it was going on, was scribbling notes furiously, writing down snatches of lyric from each song so that hopefully I could figure out what a few of them were afterwards in order to sound intelligent when I wrote this review… or at least not sound totally ignorant…

And mea culpa, that was a concern, because (I blush) I had first heard Titus Andronicus only a few weeks ago. Understand: there’s so much music out there that it’s daunting to try to keep up. But then Ox Fanzine #121 showed up at my door, complete with a song sampler. They’re a German fanzine I sometimes write for. On the sampler this time out, along with a song by The Rebel Spell, a Vancouver punk band whose remarkable, charismatic, and highly articulate singer, Todd Serious, died far too young last year on what happened to be my 47th birthday, there’s a song called “Dimed Out” by Titus Andronicus. It’s the first song, in fact, so it was hard to avoid. Three listens later, and it became my favourite song of the year so far, a spastic, blustery punk rock workout that made me realize that I needed to catch up with the band forthwith. I had no room on my budget for new LPs, really, but I’d clearly be neglecting them at my peril: I mean, I could be missing out on the new Hüsker Dü or something.

Then I found out that they were playing in a couple of weeks in Vancouver. YOU try, in the course of two weeks, to come to terms with the entire output of a band this ambitious: a band who – nevermind the reference to a Shakespeare play that I haven’t read – has a back catalog boasts both a Civil War/ youth angst theme album (The Monitor) and a triple LP rock opera (The Most Lamentable Tragedy), plus a couple other more straightforward discs besides. I mean, hell, mostly I just wanted to listen to “Dimed Out” over and over again. (“Chem Trails” by Spider Bags was pretty cool, too).

The show started late. That was an issue, because the Biltmore had plans to chuck a few hundred punks out at 11 o’clock sharp, so that a few dozen people who wanted to dance to techno could take their place, a strange custom in these parts born, perhaps, out of a sense of charity on the part of venue owners for the shitty taste in music of clubgoers, since it clearly means a net loss in alcohol sales for the venue.

And why, you ask, did the show start late? Touring American bands take note: as polite and kind as Canadians can be, this does not apply to our BORDER GUARDS. So if you’re from a big dangerous ol’ American city, and are packing something like, say, a can of mace for self-defense purposes, no matter what you say (“I heard there were bears up here, man”), your having done so will probably lead to everyone in your band being questioned for an hour and a half at the crossing, while your vehicle and mmmaybe your posterior is thoroughly searched for other contraband. Which will mean maybe that you will have to play an abbreviated set, if you get into the country at all (depending on what other contraband you have).

That’s what happened to Baked, anyhow. Without pointing fingers as to which member of which band was packin’ what, exactly, as the openers, they were forced by these circumstances to play only the shortest songs from their album Debt (which boasts the most Jandek -looking album cover of any album not actually by Jandek). They’re a NY based band of five attractive young hipster-lookin’ types, and their lineup included the evening’s only female member, the pretty Isabella Mingione, on keyboards (and lead vocals for one song). Vocalist/ guitarist R.J. Gordon is kind of an understated frontman, and Baked’s songs are of a sort that eschew catchy choruses in favour of glistening psychedelic texture and stoned-out slacker jamminess – which makes it kind of sad, in fact, that they only played songs lasting under three minutes, leaving off the best two songs from their EP, “Mick Jagger” (which clocks in at over six minutes) and “Hungry Ghosts,” which is the song with the catchiest chorus, “wait another fuckin’ minute,” and a hook that borrows just a wee bit from the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” All of the songs they actually did play were enjoyable, but left you wanting more; by the time you were ready for the first chorus to kick in, the song was over (RJ later quipped to me that “We’re definitely into the Spacemen 3 long-psychedelic-jam thing but we figured, we just have fifteen minutes, we’ll play a bunch of our short songs.”)

Baked by bev davies

It was Baked’s first show in Canada. Spider Bags had never been up here before, either, and frontman Dan McGee at one point told the audience an appealing story about explaining to his daughter on the phone that the show he was at was the furthest he’d ever played from his home (which was originally New Jersey, where Titus Andronicus hails from, but he has relocated to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the band is now based). Nothing understated at all about Spider Bags, with riffs that connected the band to both vintage rockabilly and garage punk and solos that had all the fire and enthusiasm of local guitar legend Chris Arnett, with maybe the odd flourish of Lou Reed or Keith Richards. There’s a sort of mutant Americana to what they do, a stoned insider’s vision of the past fifty years of rock music, which might have had something to do with the kind of bizarre between-set DJ choices (like Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and Meat Loaf’ s “Bat Out of Hell,” either of which hipsters of my day would have felt obliged to boo or chortle at in such a context, even if they secretly liked them). Spider Bags’ songs also had witty lyrics that managed to reach me, at least in snippets, through the din of the show (“When you’re next to me, you’re next to nothin’,” from one of the catchiest tunes of the evening, “Teenage Eyes.” or something like “I punched the river and I punched the tree/ I’m punching you and I’m punching me,” off a song I have not yet been able to identify; maybe it’s on the new split seven inch with TA?).

McGee had gotten to hang out with bev a bit, earlier, when – waiting for Baked to get done with their cavity searches and get to the venue – she took him for a walk to buy smokes at the nearby Kingsgate Mall, an experience which might have informed his slightly obscurantist between-song quip that “this is a new guitar, we traded it in for a pack of cigarettes at the border.” McGee also came up with my other bit of favourite between-song patter when he asked mid-set, “Is something burning? Anyone else smell it? …Oh, well, I guess we’ll find out.”

Spider Bags by bev davies

Nothing was. I had already bought three Titus Andronicus albums before the show, but I left the Biltmore with two CDs by Spider Bags, and actually kind of preferred their set, which was a little easier for a noob to digest, compared to the more daunting, demanding (tho’ likely more rewarding, once you sit down with a lyric sheet) Titus Andronicus.

Not that Titus’ more seasoned fans had any problem getting enthusiastic. Before the show, people were so stoked that they were walking up to complete strangers – like, uh, me – to high five them and say things like, “Can you believe this? I was home all day listening to Titus on my headphones, they’re in my top five ever, this is unreal” (from a happy drunk young fella in a Foals t-shirt). Then leader Patrick Stickles walked onstage, shedding his olive-drab jacket to reveal a well-worn TA wifebeater and a Crass tattoo on his right shoulder, and made a “plea for empathy and compassion,” since even before things began he could sense a “rowdy” vibe in the audience.

We must have all assumed that it was an ironic gesture, befitting the gentle strains from the keyboard and the low-key opening song, a mellowed-out version of “Upon Viewing Breugel’s ‘Landcape with the Fall of Icarus,’” off their debut album, 2008’s The Airing of Grievances. No one stage dived for THAT one, and Stickles’ too-earnest pleas (“no exerting your physical will on other members of the audience just because you’re bigger and drunker than they are”) won mostly laughs. Once the band started to rock, though, from the margins you could see crowd surfers riding above happy smiling faces in a bouncy packed moshpit, with fists pumping, limbs flailing, and lips mouthing lyrics that I alone, apparently, could only barely begin to discern. After a few songs, it still seemed like mostly a gag when Stickles repeated his request, saying archly that he was a “tortured artistic soul,” and that at least one person out there, whom he didn’t want to single out, was “scaring the artist,” and should calm it down a bit. I mean, can you blame us for thinking he might be kidding, when he referred to himself as “your grumpy uncle Patrick” and said things like “no more shenanigans, all right?”

This apparently wasn’t, in fact, a joke, since it came up again a few songs later and at greater length and with less humour, with Stickles decrying the self-absorption of drinkers, who think everything revolves around them (and saying he used to be one of them, which made it worse for him)… but if Stickles’ attempts to avoid getting hit and jostled by the stage diver in question had any effect on people, for better or worse, it wasn’t noticeable. The audience LOVED this band, and expressed it in very physical, rather rowdy ways, no matter what. The most striking moment for me was seeing a couple hundred people packed right up front shouting along in the most rapturous manner imaginable with the lyric, “you will always be a loser,” from “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future,” off The Monitor (the only album by the band, sadly, not present at the merch table; guess it’s a bit of a hot commodity). It’s a hell of a line for an audience to bond with a band so completely on. I envied them their joy: it was the first time I’d heard the song, since The Monitor is sold out at all the local record shops I’ve been to, too.

Bits of scraps of notes of note, from folded pieces of paper in my pocket… Stickles on gun laws:“We don’t have any of those. The laws is that everyone has to have at least one gun and has to discharge it once a day… America is a fucked up place.” There was a point where his brother joined him onstage to read from what I presume was a Civil-War era speech, but it was lost on me, and I don’t know what song it introduced. Then, after “Dimed Out,” Stickles checked the time with the audience (“does anyone have a watch?”) and said, after a brief conference with his bandmates, “So long as we’re up here in Canada, we’re going to pay tribute to one of our favorite artists, Neil Young.” Titus Andronicus built to their closing song (“Fatal Flaw”) with covers of “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” and “Walk On.”

Unfortunately, bev, who actually knows Neil, was outside with Dan McGee at that point, as Dan smoked a final cigarette before everyone loaded out and drove to Seattle, where they’d already wisely booked rooms. I joined them, enjoying the chill fall air, as people spilled out of the Biltmore in the hundreds. About twenty tehcno-heads were lined up waiting to take their place.

You gotta wonder about the business sense of a decision like that, but I had to commute back to the suburbs, so really, I didn’t mind.

Baked, Spider Bags, and Titus Andronicus continue to tour together through the month of October. Tour dates here