Although they call James Brown the hardest working man in show business, it seems like Ted Leo should have a comparable title. Hardest working man in indie rock? Perhaps, but this evening his show began with excuses. Not exactly the best way to start a night of rock ’n’ roll. Leo—armed with only his guitar and a disarming smile—called to the crowd’s attention a laundry list of problems he and his Pharmacists would have to overcome during this particular gig. First of all, he was feeling “ragged.” Secondly, he had dropped his amp while setting up for the show and was unsure of the quality of his guitar sound. Finally, his drummer, the ferocious Chris Wilson, recently had to get stitches for an on-the-road injury. Adding up these disclaimers, I wasn’t expecting much from Leo and his cohorts, but something about the veteran musician’s cool demeanor as he waxed unsure made it seem like he was just being his usually modest, nice-guy self.
Turns out, that was the case.
After a few songs from his latest, 2004’s Shake the Sheets (Lookout!), Leo dedicated his next song to “his new friend Joan.” This fresh acquaintance got the most from her shout-out as the former Chisel frontman launched into “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?,” one of the several standout tracks from his modern classic, Hearts of Oak. The song is a five-minute encapsulation of why much of Leo’s oeuvre is downright essential listening, sporting the Cadillac of guitar riffs combined with a happy-go-lucky pop sensibility and lyrics lamenting the long-gone days of 2 tone, when bands like The Specials and Madness flourished.
It’s the kind of song that forces even the most curmudgeonly soul to take notice on first listen, and why Leo has garnered increasing attention over the last few years despite his disinterest in being co-opted into the mainstream. As Travis Morrison said in an interview shortly after the announced break-up of his former band, The Dismemberment Plan, “I don’t think we were as brave as Ted Leo, someone who could’ve made a million dollars on a major, but chose to stick it out on smaller labels.”
But for those at the Variety Playhouse (which Leo referred to as the largest club he and his band have ever played), this DIY mentality and dedication to quality music over superfluous cash flow was a blessing. “Me and Mia” (from Shake the Sheets) started awkwardly, but built up steam, becoming one of the night’s highlights, and “Timorous Me” was just as awe-inspiring as on record (from 2002’s The Tyranny of Distance).
Unfortunately left off the set list was the stunning “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” on which Leo has been known to rock the mic sans guitar (and with tambourine in tow). Also absent from the evening’s entertainment was Leo’s now-semi-famous (thanks to various blogs and P2P networks) cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” As crowd members shouted out requests for the song, Leo was prompted to address the absence, saying that he didn’t want the cover to become some kind of schtick he and his band were expected to perform.
Nevertheless, after more than an hour of energetic performance, Leo returned from backstage, saying, “I figured I’d just keep going rather than waste time back there,” referring to the long-held tradition of stalling before the encore. Leo then indulged the crowd in a pair of solo songs, including a moving version of “Dirty Old Town,” before one final full-band number and a gracious goodbye to the denizens of the Playhouse, ensuring all he’d be back. At show’s end, all excuses were null and void—those used at the beginning of the show, and those that could’ve been used by anyone claiming they didn’t get their money’s worth.