All words: Colin Wilhelm
All photos: Stephanie Breijo
This review could be the phrase “Ted Leo is awesome” 500 times over. Some statements just need to be left alone as objective facts; his set Sunday night was terrific. This would probably disappoint those who came to this space expecting a detailed version of Sunday night’s events, but it would be no less accurate. Against better judgment, but in the sake of posterity, we’ll delve a little further into that assertion.
Leo and the Pharmacists were awesome Sunday night, and they were so for a simple reason: they played generally well-crafted, guitar-centric songs with an easy confidence and tightness that most bands will never achieve. They started out with a flurry, “The Mighty Sparrow” followed by a seamless transition to “Angel’s Share”. They kept going with a flawlessness that made one play the mental game, “What Differences are There Between This Set and the Recordings?”
Towards the end there may have been a guitar riff here, a little solo there, some fast up and down stroke jamming, but ultimately Ted Leo and Rx played the musical equivalent of a marble statue; all smooth, no major cracks, a finicky monitor or speaker that occasionally gave a dull buzz and broken guitar string excepted. Usually there’s at least some degree of variation between a band’s recordings and its live sound. Someone could have told me that they had been transplanted by powerpop and punk playing androids (least practical robots ever) on the run from Harrison Ford and I wouldn’t have been shocked.
They could not have picked a better night to be in such excellent form. Producer of The Tyranny of Distance, the 2001 album commemorated by the Friday and Sunday Black Cat shows as part of a mini-tour, brother to Pharmacists’ guitarist James Canty, former Fugazi drummer, and documentarian Brendan Canty recorded the show with his film company Trixie Films. Though they did their best to be innocuous their presence was occasionally, if only momentarily, distracting. As one concertgoer said, “Those guys in hoodies are not really as incognito as they think they are.”
But as hooded cinematographers filmed his every move, Ted Leo acknowledged he hasn’t always attained the lofty indie rock god status he’s held up to these days. Before embarking on “Me and Mia” he dedicated it to the Black Cat, one of three clubs he credited with fostering his career after Chisel. Leo seemed relaxed and at home onstage, happy to be back in the town where he springboarded his career. “That was literally the first we’ve hit that stop in ‘Mighty Sparrow’ without people going, ‘alright [and applauding as if the song was over].” Not too long after this he followed with a birthday shoutout to Chris Richards, formerly of fellow D.C. punk scions Q and Not U and currently of The Washington Post Style section.
Leo finished up the night in grand fashion. First he and the Pharmicists compelled a mostly stationary audience to cut loose to “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?,” his first encore. Then, just as his music made pulled them up and down and side to side, their applause pulled him back on stage for a second (this time solo) encore. “I’m going to borrow James’s guitar for this one,” he said, devilish grin on face, as both of his guitars were out of commission–collateral damage in a night of much thrashing.
Opening band Sunwolf played like they’d grown up listening to Yes and Dischord Records bands mashed up. There was a prog influence beneath the more standard D.C. postpunk sound that I heard, one that would make for an increasingly interesting mixture if explored properly. At times though, the Vitamin Water Uncapped LIVE alumni got lost in the soup of guitars, hi-hat, and yelling that they concocted.
Second band Noon:30 disappointed. After reading a bit about them I had high hopes. Most of their songs consisted of some ambient noise with monotonous drumbeats and rhythm guitars backing aggressive, often shouted lyrics. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but there also was little of interest. Few melodies were found, and most of what they played seemed to be sound and fury signifying nothing yet shouted through a megaphone.
Their music contained a great deal of anger but little nuance and generally not enough power, either in fullness of sound or urgency, to convey that in an interesting way. However when frontwoman Blue S. Moon picked up a bass (albeit only for one song) they sounded much less sparse, even though they’d used bass loops for much of their set. And the finale of their set, a rap that hit the notes of indignation and raw emotion Moon had aimed for throughout, was also its highpoint.
Still the takeaway from Sunday was how incredibly tight Leo and company played. Even when denied guitar, as on “The Ballad of the Sin-Eater,” he brought his signature energy to the whole song, feeding off a crowd whipped into its most fervent after “Rude Boys.” “We’ll do it live!” he said, channeling the viral video of political polar opposite Bill O’Reilly before attacking the chorus of, “You didn’t think they could hate you know did you,” in full punk force.