Ted Leo and the Pharmacists / April 28, 2007 / Chicago (Metro)
If Ted Leo isn't the hardest-working man in show business, he's doing a poor job proving otherwise. There he was, in front of a sold-out crowd at Chicago's Metro, dripping with sweat a mere three songIf Ted Leo isn't the hardest-working man in show business, he's doing a poor job proving otherwise. There he was, in front of a sold-out crowd at Chicago's Metro, dripping with sweat a mere three songs into his set, and he was already talking about his next show. Not in a couple a couple of days, but in a couple of hours, across town at the smaller Hideout.
That barely gave Leo time to change, let along time to refuel, but the singer's not one to complain. In fact, with his eye on the clock, Leo was relatively tight lipped as he and his now three-piece band careened through highlights from his past four albums. Not that Ted Leo and the Pharmicists ever take it easy; the group plays each set like it's its last, pouring everything into the music to the apparent point of near exhaustion. And not that anything needed to be said: after 9/11 and the debacle in Iraq reset Leo's mind, he's been saying everything that needs to be said in his politically charged music, indebted in both sound and message to punk forbearers such as Paul Weller and Joe Strummer.
Strummer was the source of one cover Leo played (a solo version of his similarly solo vintage "Johnny Appleseed") with Chumbawumba's epic anthem of defiance "Rappaport's Testament: I Never Gave Up" the night's closer. In between came song after song of tightly wound pop, punk in spirit as much in practice and spilling over with equal parts melody and indignation.
Beginning with the searing "Sons of Cain," Leo blasted through several songs from the new "Living With the Living," from the armed forces missive "Army Bound" to the intense "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb." But he also showed his sense of restraint and songcraft with "A Bottle of Buckie" (played sans pennywhistle solo) and "The Unwanted Things" (punked up a bit from the old school reggae version on the record).
Remarkably, the new songs (including one so new it's not on an album yet) fit right in with previously established Leo favorites like "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?," "Me and Mia" or "Timorous Me," which tipped its hat to Thin Lizzy without coming off kitsch. Like many of the acts Leo referenced this night, from classic rock to classic punk, he emphasized the elements that made them "classic" to begin with, the only differences being the contemporary bent of the lyrics.
Even then, the more things change the more they stay the same, and much of Leo's anger and dissatisfaction would have been right at home 20 or 30 years ago. The difference is that Leo's the type of guy gutsy enough to know when to say when. Watching him breeze through "La Costa Brava," which he has called a song of rejuvenation, it was hard to imagine even a hero of Leo's like Strummer sitting back and simply stopping to smell the roses as Leo essentially does in the song.
"Everyone needs a Sunday some day," sang Leo, "everyone needs to take some time away." Would many other dyed in the wool punk radicals ever dare say anything similar?