School is back in session, and that means another year of great Ithaca concerts. The season kicked off last Wednesday night with a triumphant Dan Smalls Presents show by New Jersey natives Titus Andronicus and Philadelphia’s Free Energy, two up and coming bands who each embody the best of a distinct style of music from the past few decades. Titus are masters of the Bruce Springsteen school of anthemic storytelling, while Free Energy have made a name for themselves as harbingers of the rebirth of 1970’s AM rock acts like Journey and The Cars.The show kicked off with an opening set from Sweetheart, a local Ithaca College band. True to their name, the band was lovable — if loud — and had songs filled with catchy backing vocals and power chords. Songs with adorably sweet high-pitched ooohs were juxtaposed with hard-core party chants such as “going to be a good night.” The set came to an epic end when their final number churned into a shambled version of The J. Geils Band’s 1981 hit “Centerfold.”Next up was Free Energy: an energetic and exceptionally charismatic act from Philadelphia. After a previous life as Minnesota-based Hockey Night, Free Energy got together a few years ago, and spurred on by the ridiculously entertaining 2009 single “Dream City” they recorded 2010’s Stuck on Nothing. Released by New York label DFA, and helmed by label head and LCD Soundsystem kingpin James Murphy, the album is one of 2010’s strongest debuts. Free Energy certainly knows the power of its singles, and opened the show with album opener and eponymous single (and the only song to rock more than “Dream City”) “Free Energy.” After this, they immediately began the second song on the album, previous single “Dream City,” which contains the supremely appropriate lyrics for Ithaca “Hey, we’re coming out! Kids across town!”In fact, Free Energy builds much of their power off of a youthful playfulness, hitting power stances for their many guitar solos. Onstage they also seem like they’re playing a part, as all of the band’s five members have hair down to their shoulders, three have facial hair and one guitar had a giant feather sticking out from it. Their sound is immediately recognizable as owing a major debt to the radio friendly rock music that came out in the 1970s. All of their songs are crowd pleasers, with instantly recognizable choruses and guitar parts that are catchy, yet intricate. Their songs are more about feelings than messages, giving the audience a genuinely pleasant sensation that just makes people want to dance and sing along. Despite this, each song is clearly very much thought out, with each guitar chord that comes crashing down and each cymbal smash carefully placed to maximize power.More then anything, Titus Andronicus are storytellers. Frontman Patrick Stickles may have shaved his beard shorter for recent shows, but his eyes can still pierce through a person, seemingly everywhere but not actually looking at anything. On their two records, their 2008 debut The Airing of Grievances and 2010 Civil War themed The Monitor, the band created songs that are both sprawling and concentrated, often at the same time. The songs are more in your face and immediate live, coming off as visceral bursts of power that recall the best moments of Bruce Springsteen with a healthy dose of Minor Threat and DC punk.The band started off their show with soft and slow guitar lines, which seemed to be more like melodic pickings then anything else. They quickly launched into “A More Perfect Union,” the opening track and single off of their latest album. The song may be more Springsteen then any of their others, but still seemed rough around the edges in the best sense, recalling more of youthful arrogance then elder rock statesman. Titus then followed up with a set that highlighted their strengths and overpowered their weaknesses, with a song one moment that could be anchored by the sort of pounding drum that could and did fuel a mosh pit and then the next pulled out the rat-a-tat-tat of an army march. In fact, many times their songs felt like outsider military cadences, with lines such as “you will be a loser” becoming anthemic sing alongs for the crowd.A highlight of the set was when the band called Alex Tretiak ’08 onstage to help perform “Upon Viewing Bruegel’s ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’,” a b-side to 2008’s “Camus” single. Tretiak had played tambourine on the original recording of the song, and was called onstage as a double shout out to Cornell and to New Jersey, as both tambourine player and band hail from the town of Glen Rock, NJ. The song embodied everything that is right with Titus Andronicus. It was catchy and melodic, while being powerful and loud. There were piano lines, but also screaming guitars and a violin. It was contradictory, but worked perfectly.While they had already won over the audience with catchy, yet powerful songs about youth, New Jersey and youth in New Jersey, Titus Andronic peppered their set with little one-liners that they fed to the college audience with glee. The standout was a well timed, if ironic, remark about how Cornell has the best frat parties. If there was any doubt about how Ithaca partied, the mosh pit proved them right.
Original Author: Peter Jacobs