Words by Brian O’Neill | Photos by Matthew Shaver
If there was a heartland in New Jersey – and in spite of its reputation it’s easy to argue that is absolutely the case – Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus taps into it the same way that The Feelies and even Bruce Springsteen did. All three bands share a penchant for earnest, personal lyrics with straight-forward organic rock and roll as the vehicle to express them.
Titus Andronicus would be blue collar if Stickles had a collar. Since he only wore a plain white tee, we’ll call them no frills instead. The band embraces the punk moniker and spirit more than the stereotypical snarl; you can tell they all wore out their Social Distortion wax years ago with their interpretation of punk as folk music, only louder.
Set closer “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ” perfectly encapsulated the 45-minute set. As the band ripped behind him, Stickles cynically spit out how God couldn’t possibly be here where nothing seems worthy of His grace before slipping into a shredding guitar solo exploding with so much passionate fury that it might have been the best counter-argument to his thesis.
Bob Mould has been mining the same fertile songwriting soil for decades now. His confidence in his craft is obvious with how he takes the stage devoid of pomp or showmanship. He plugs in, makes sure his pedals work, and leaps into “Hoover Dam,” one of the best songs the ‘90s produced from Copper Blue, one of the best albums of the grunge era. That he would kick off the set with two Sugar songs when he followed it up with “Your Favorite Thing,” and later tack on “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” from the same era, shows how comfortable he is in his own skin these days.
That wasn’t always the case. He seemed to go through phases in that respect – his first album after Hüsker Dü broke up, 1988’s Workbook, had a lighter tone that distanced him from the buzzsaw guitar he was known for before returning to form in the ‘90s with Black Sheets of Rain and Sugar. Then he experimented with programmed drums on a few more solo albums before breaking from music entirely for a short stint. When he returned, it was with the electronica-infused solo album Modulate and a collaborative effort with dance music artist Richard Morel as Blowoff.
He performed only two tracks from these wilderness releases, and they were both off Workbook: the melancholy “See A Little Light” and more expansive “Sinners and their Repentances.” They seemed heavier than when first released three decades ago, befitting his rhythm section of Jason Narducy and
The trio has been together since 2012’s Silver Age which marks a long period of consistency for Mould. Aside from a stable line-up which gives the appearance of a band rather than a solo project, the four albums released in this time – inclusive of Sunshine Rock that came out a week before the Philly show – all show deference to the bristling punk-inspired indie rock that has garnered Mould his biggest acclaim while retaining the songwriting chops that was the one constant no matter how dressed up or down he was at any given time.
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the set was culled from the past several years. “The Descent,” which heralded his return to unabashed bash, was the lone Silver Age representation; it also fits in perfectly as a harbinger of loud guitar to come alongside the darker “Losing Time” off Patch the Sky and eight tracks from the new album. Standouts among them included “I Fought,” a defiant, anthemic riposte that embodied all of the passion and fury that drives Mould’s most compelling work (and whose opening riff prompted him to pounce across the stage like he was half his 59 years of age) which was followed by “Lost Faith,” a more down-tuned, introspective track led by Narducy’s expansive bassline and Wurster’s offbeat shuffle.
Those two tracks performed right after each other showcased that Sunshine Rock might be the strongest album of his most recent quartet and possibly his best solo outing since Black Sheets of Rain which was unrepresented in the setlist.
The close of the Washington DC show that kicked off the tour the preceding evening featured three songs from his time in Hüsker Dü including “Never Talking to You Again” which must have been a poignant remembrance of his fallen bandmate Grant Hart who penned the track. The packed Union Transfer crowd had to settle for “Something I Learned Today” and “Chartered Trips” off Zen Arcade as well as the surprising inclusion of “In A Free Land.” This was the band’s second single from 1982, and according to Mould, hadn’t been played live for three years. The one track from Mould’s primordial past still fit in alongside the rest of the set with his shimmering guitar and political lyrics – “Everybody’s an authority in a free land” – that are still apropos today, maybe even more so.
Instead of classic Dü, Philly’s encore was the very first performance of “What Do You Want Me To Do” off Sunshine Rock and the finale “Black Confetti” from Patch The Sky.
What sets Bob Mould apart in his four decades of making music is his ability to make loud, guitar-driven music accessible. Although he doubtlessly was inspired by the Ramones and Buzzcocks and pushed by his Minneapolis peers, his is an inborn talent. Even when he was fighting these natural tendencies, he was still interesting; when playing 22 songs over 90 minutes that unapologetically embrace them, it’s clear that nobody does it better.