Ted Leo/Pharmacists – live review

Expectations can be a real bitch. I’d been keenly looking forward to the Ted Leo show at Call the Office for a rather long time. It was a strange situation: I found out they were playing at CTO a month and a bit ago, and the name sounded familiar, so I looked into them… and it was love from first note. I started counting the days until the concert; and so my entire relationship with the band has been based around their performance in London, that happened last night.

I got a chance to talk to Ted Leo for a while before the show, which was rather exciting. After getting the sincere complimenting out of the way, I decided to play music-journalist and asked him how he would describe his music. He disassociated himself from the indie rock scene, contending that more than anything his music is strongly rooted in punk, even if it doesn’t sound like what we traditionally expect punk to be (very melodic, catchy, joyful). While the arrangements may differ, he feeds off of the spirit and the intensity as well as the politicism and meaning behind the punk movement. And when it comes to a ‘how punk are you?’ contest, that’s probably a whole lot more important than yelling and playing simplistic power chords. He also acknowledged the celtic influence I detected (and loved) in his music, saying it’s definitely one of the things swimming around in his head that comes out occassionally in the songs. He proffered that celtic music has a certain fire at its soul that goes beyond other traditional musics, and I felt it necessary to agree. He revealed that the followup to 2003’s spectacular Hearts of Oak has been done for a little while and will be released in October, and also mentioned that he has a very good friend in Hamilton so it isn’t too far-out to imagine that my studies next year might have a Ted Leo/Pharmacists concert or two injected into them somewhere. Looking at past tour schedules, it seems that the band spends most of their time on the road.

It’s always nice when the opening band at a show is actually very good and entertaining. Leo Lookout Labelmates The Reputation had that honour last night. Earlier, Ted had described them as smooth (emphasis on smooth) indie pop, and that was pretty accurate. Somewhere in the land of mixes between Garbage and the Cardigans. Catchy female led singings, with nice melodies and even some piano at times. I had not heard a peep of their music before the show, but afterwards I was very impressed and I made sure to tell Elizabeth Elmore (formerly of Sarge) that at the merch table. Really, if Reputation was that headliners I doubt I’d come out disappointed. I’m on their mailing-list now, and they gave us the impression that they would very likely be back in the nearish future. And that’s when I really started hoping that Leo/Rx, who I’d been highly hyping to myself and others for a while, wouldn’t end up sucking. Precedents such as really good support bands can be dangerous things.

Ted Leo and his (fully certified?) Pharmacists (Chris on drums, Dave on bass) didn’t waste much time getting on stage and getting the show started. They got all their shit together, microphones checked, amps connected, and they hit the first note of My Vein Ilin somewhere around a quarter to midnight.

And they rocked.

Pretty much any positive musical adjective I can think of could apply, but I will pick and choose for the sake of time and length constraints. Around the time of All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s release, one of our friend Bono’s stock quotes was about joy in music: how it’s easy to sing about broken hearts and wasted lives but much more difficult to deliver a compelling song that has true joy at its core. Well, Ted Leo makes it seem pretty easy. And profound. The well of the high spirits as the beat pumps along at full force and the melodies leap deliriously about is truly spectacular. The songs are not all of a single mood, they bend from menacing to tragic and angry to euphoric, but they constantly maintain the pure vitality of flight and energy that generally permeates great music (at least the kind I find myself partial to). It puts a smile in your heart a bob to your head. Moreover, the musicianship is technically masterful; intricate, complex, and inspired. There were moments where it seemed as if there was a drum solo, a guitar solo, and a bass solo taken and layered on top of eachother to create a beautiful, ordered cacophony. And on top of that some really poetic, insightful, wise, and bigworded lyrics.

But I already knew all of that from listening to the albums. And I was of course hoping that all of that would translate well to the stage. I should have known. Because the band is so fervent and direct, the music works ridiculously well live, and surpasses the album versions pretty easily just from the raw energy smashed out through the songs on stage. They played a very great majority of all the songs from both The Tyranny of Distance, and Hearts of Oak. Ted himself is quite the showman, and whether he gives the songs energy or they give it all to him, he has a lot. He hopped/danced around a lot and gave the lyrics his all. Chris was pretty manically banging on the skins as well, though Dave and his bass was a much more passive affair, with his fingers doing most of the movement. Ted was also very talkative between songs without ever once resorting to the tired, overused, and potentially annoying “Is everyone having a good time?…I’m sure you can do better than that!” routine. He referenced homestarrunner and seemed surprised no one else got the reference, asked for an update on what happened in our election cause he wouldn’t hear about it in the vacuum that is the United States (the band was last in Canada about a month ago), and though he claimed he couldn’t take sides, he hinted through mime and mouthing that he would support NDP if it came down to it. He also talked about the new album (which they played 4 or 5 songs from), mentioned they’d likely be back in the fall in support of it (!!!!), gave the Blues festival several mentions, and asked the audience which song they’d like to hear at least once. At one point Dave’s bass completely stopped working during the middle of a song and when it became obvious that it wouldn’t be fixing itself quickly, it came down to The Reputation to lend a hand and some equipment. It turns out that the picture I snapped of the members of both bands conferencing at the edge of the stage was the last my memory card had room for, I was surprised this had happened so quickly until I realized that they’d already been on stage longer than your average club show headliner. In order to negate extended dead air while the bass was being, Ted Leo played a solo number (I think it was Ghosts, but I’m not totally up on all the song titles) and then as I was about to yell out a cover of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town as a suggestion (they’ve released it on the Tell Baleary Balgury is Dead EP), Monsieur Leo said something along the lines of “This song could really be about any city…” and then played Dirty Old Town. This made Damon very happy. I really do hope my occasional loud singing along didn’t completely ruin the videorecording being done by the young woman next to me. Eventually the bass problem was resolved and they got back into the thick of things.

They ended the main set with a lovely cover of Stiff Little Fingers’ Suspect Device. For the encore they played Parallel or Together, which was very nice because it’s one of my favourite songs of theirs, but I had forgotten to be waiting for them to play it beacuse I was being inundated with so much great music (I will admit almost all of their songs are favourites of mine). Then they ended the night by playing, by request, a very nicely done cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark.

So by the time they left the stage for good and the house music started once again, it was already 1:30. Some quick math revealed that the band had been up there for something like an hour and forty five minutes! Definitely beyond what you normally expect from a club show, and even if you don’t consider the very enjoyable opening band, definitely more than you deserve for seven dollars. And in the aftermath, I’ve had seven or eight Ted Leo/Rx songs happily wedged in my head constantly trading places and vying for attention, which is usually a good sign.

The final verdict: Near perfection. Hands down the best concert I have ever seen for less than $10. I can’t logically expect to see a better show this year, except perhaps when Ted Leo comes back, as he promised he would. And when Ted Leo returns to London, Hamilton, Toronto, or wherever, you owe it to yourself to go see him. I intend to remind you.

Some info on The Reputation’s new album, including a high quality mp3 is available here. You can also find some videos and mp3s of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists ’round these parts (look under video, and the album descriptions in ‘discography’ for some individual mp3s).

The pictures I took of the night’s proceedings are here.

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