November 23, 2004

New Jersey's Leo shows D.C. girl that the Midwest can rock. You dig?

I have a confession to make. For the longest while I didn't really believe people when they told me that Chicago was the great music town. Sure, I was willing to accept the whole "hometown of blues" bit and, don't get me wrong, I like blues and being in a place that is so central to them. But when it came to my scene—the indie/progressive/punk/post-rock/hardcore/ska, etc. scene—I've seen a lot of shows in my time, and I came to Chicago pretty jaded. I blame my hometown. Two things that kids growing up in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. have in spades are general jadedness and a booming underground music scene. Combine the two and you can imagine how low my expectations were.

But, my friends, as of last Thursday night I've seen the light and his name is Ted Leo. Never again will I doubt my ability to rock out in the Midwest. His performance at Metro was one of the most polished and compelling I've ever seen. Add in the ever-plentiful supply of energy on all sides, and you've got yourself an authentic rock show.

And get this: Even the openers were good. All of them, which is a rare feat. But with Leo and his band, the Pharmacists, hand-picking these solid rockers, it's no surprise that each set was tight, and that the line-up as a whole worked steadily to kick-up the energy. Starting with A-Set's raw, minimalist sound, flowing to Natural History's roaring guitars and driving rhythms, and on to the Tossers' hard-hitting Celtic/punk fusion, it was no wonder that the crowd was totally charged by the time the Pharmacists took the stage.

Even after the good omens that were the openers' performances, I have to admit that I was still less excited than the scores of emo kids around me. I'd never seen Ted Leo/Pharmacists live, and, judging by the only album I have, Hearts of Oak, I was a tad skeptical of their ability to really rock a show. I know, I know, I blaspheme. But not every band will morph their album sound to one that plays off of a crowd, and, let's face it, emo shows can be pretty mellow. What I'd heard of Leo on his albums was tight, gripping and well crafted, but didn't always ring of live energy. I was sure I'd be impressed intellectually, given the artistic depth of Leo's work, but was somewhat doubtful of being stirred emotionally. Of course, the latter is what really makes a good show, what sets it apart from the album-listening experience.

Happily, I was proven wrong yet again. Listening to Ted Leo/Pharmacists on your iPod is a world away from listening to them onstage. It's the difference between driving 60 mph and driving 100; the mechanics—the basics—are the same, but the impressions are nothing alike. Leo opened with that concentrated, steaming energy on the first chord of "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" No warm-up necessary. He just got onstage and let that riff loose like a coiled spring bursting out of a jack-in-the-box, and went right on running with full intensity on each chord of every song of the set. Drummer Chris Wilson and bassist Dave Lerner were dead-on, matching the sharp focus and sheer power of Leo's guitar-work, upping the ante but still maintaining a solid musical foundation.

Above this foundation, and above the energy storm, soared Leo's signature voice; soft, rangy, and twisting with melodic flourishes and incisive lyrics, wrenching every heart in the place. His renditions of the rebellious and wounded "No More Shall I Be Loyal to My Sorrowful Country" and the faintly sinister "The High Party" were notable highlights. The killer combination of lyrics and melody, of roaring instrumental energy and delicate vocals, was at its best during those songs, and the flood of energy generated by the set was only just under control. Deft musicians indeed, the trio worked the potential chaos to their advantage, keeping it deliberate and just barely under pressure in order to strike the optimum tension to keep the crowd rocking.

Ted Leo/Pharmacists proved that emo can have just as much raw edge as punk does, can sustain just as much controlled energy as blues does, and still make each song a real work of art. These qualities fused together are rare, and the blend of artistic power and rocking dynamism that Leo's work embodies makes for powerful stuff. It is the same balance that the Clash, Hendrix, and other rock greats had, although by no means does Leo imitate these bands. To the contrary, the trick is that he pours himself into the writing of every one of his songs, and stretches himself absolutely thin in every performance of them. It is a powerful thing to witness, this art, and more importantly, a hell of a lot of fun. In concert, Leo makes me remember why I liked shows in the first place.