October 15, 2007

Ted Leo openers stick to the formula

Lately, it seems the scene is always the same. For moderately successful musicians on their U.S. tours, the formula for opening bands is downright predictable. The first group is incredible, mind-blowing even, but their performance is marked by a small audience consisting of the after-work crowd. The second group, blessed with a larger, slightly rowdier audience, is the worst band you’ve seen to date. It’s hard to describe bad music, but I like to think of it in terms of time frame. Sometimes you can tell a good band in the first three seconds—sometimes it takes 20 minutes to get into it. With a bad one, however, everything you need to know is revealed by or before minute three. Minute three is when cautious curiosity turns into ear-bleeding, and so you do what anyone does: check your texts, go to the bar, read the graffiti on the bathroom walls, check your watch every two minutes. Yes, these are all symptoms of opening band part two.

My opening-band theory was demonstrated with admirable consistency by Ted Leo’s two openers: The A-Sides and the Eternals. Before I go any further, let me explain why this review is not about Ted Leo himself. At the end of the Eternals, just as it seemed I could see Ted Leo somewhere in the distance, my plus-one had a little problem. Well, actually a big food poisoning problem, and so I magically transformed from music reviewer to first-aid assistant, hailed a cab, and rushed my dear plus-one to the nearest hospital. But back to the beginning.

The A-Sides, like most first opening bands, were fantastic. They have a compelling lead singer who caught and held the attention of a tired, drifting audience from the beginning to the end of his long set. He’s one of those musicians born with the ability to yell into the microphone without seeming like a total moron, a quality notably exhibited by John Lennon. He also refrained from using eyeliner, which may seem like a small thing, but it added some much-appreciated legitimacy to the show. The potentially more youth-oriented A-Sides held their own in front of the older just-off-work crowd because of their lack of pretentiousness. The A-Sides sound is a mix of grunge and indie, kind of like Nirvana meets the Kooks. Their lyrics are vague, but at the moment it’s working for them. There’s a certain amount of trust that goes into seeing a show, and two songs into it, I couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief. The trust on this one would go unscathed.

But not for long. When the Eternals took the stage after the A-Sides, morale was high. By this time, as is always the case, a younger crowd had filtered in, and symbols of indie youth—carefully groomed bangs, tight black jeans, lots of hats—could be spotted everywhere. The lead singer of the Eternals came on in an Elton John costume fit to wake the dead, and though a bit suspicious, I was ready for greatness. Greatness never came. The Eternals are the kind of band that rely so heavily on slow drum beats that they have no sense of rhythm whatsoever. The lead singer couldn’t hold a note to save his life, but that didn’t stop him from jumping into strange contortions to get the point across. Believe me when I call it multi-leveled heinousness of the worst order.

And so in the A-sides and the Eternals, we see certain universal themes on the subject of opening bands. The first band is more straightforward and unassuming, while the second will slather on all manner of glitter to draw attention away from the weakness of their sound. The first band works hard with a meager audience, while the second band sits back and takes the crowd for granted. Why, I wonder, does this seem like such an established pattern? Why do different headline artists mutually and independently replicate the same thing? It seems like there are darker forces at work, and I propose one possible explanation. Perhaps headliners have figured out one of the nefarious truths about theatrics: It is always better to follow someone clearly worse than you. While the great first band captures the audience and delivers something truly enjoyable, the terrible second band gives the audience time to get riled up, to get really hungry for the good music they had just a few minutes ago, and hope to have again. The second band, rather than being just a poor decision, becomes a bankable phenomenon. Good, then bad, then great. It’s enough to make your average music reviewer shake her head with shame. Oh, Ted Leo. How could you?