Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Concert Review - Ted Leo & the Pharmacists at Millennium Park and Fireside Bowl

“I don’t what to do about this country, man. Like this is a serious problem for me. I’m losing sleep.”

“I know.”

This was the conversation a friend and I had while walking to the Ted Leo & the Pharmacists show Monday night. It’s been a rough few weeks for American liberals as we’ve seen incompetent leaders on both sides of the aisle fiddle while our already-burning nation edges closer and closer to the tinderbox. I have to admit it was starting to wear perceptibly on me, making my chest clench every time I turned on the radio.

Times like these call for in inspiring music and, as always, Ted Leo was the man for the job.

Ted Leo has built his band’s fan base slowly and honorably, never sacrificing his vision or voice for sales. Over the years he’s played basements and warehouses and opened for the likes of Pearl Jam and Death Cab For Cutie. This week’s Chicago performances show that the band has managed to plant a foot firmly in both worlds. The Pharmacists demonstrated that they could just as easily wow a festival crowd of thousands with soaring anthems as turn a bowling alley into a sweaty dance party and each experience was a revelation.

Monday night’s show started with a bomb shell. Ted stepped on stage and modestly announced that this year they had been celebrating the tenth anniversary of their debut album Tyranny of Distance by playing it front-to-back and that this seemed an appropriate place to repeat that.

For the number of dyed-in-the-wool Leo fans who inevitably turn up at his concerts, such news was a gift from musical heaven. As I’ve mentioned, Tyranny of Distance is one of those all-time, sing-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs, memorize-the-song-transitions documents that you live and die with. It has all the sonic diversity, memorable hooks, sweaty passion and keen human insight that any great album requires and it marks the beginning of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists as the band we know now.

But before getting into the album, the boys had to “warm up” and did so with a mini-greatest hits set of seven songs. Tunes I’d grown used to slamming to in clubs such as “Sons of Cain”, “Me & Mia” and “Where Have All The Rudeboys Gone?” sounded as if they were made to echo across the lawn of the Pritzker Pavilion. The set ended with his latest single, seemingly custom-made to convert the uninitiated, “Bottled In Cork”.

As soon as the first guitar licks of Tyranny’s lead track, “Biomusicology” started wafting up from the stage, the mood in the park shifted. The song, one of Leo’s finest, is the indie rock equivalent of Chicken Soup For The Soul, merging soaring lead lines with energetic rhythm guitar and drums in a call to work, live and love everyday as hard as you can. But while the album version floats behind shimmery keyboards, live the song thunders along behind scratchy guitars and pounding drums. By the closing lines, people were on their feet applauding.

The band powered through classics like “Timorous Me” and live rarities such as “The Great Communicator” with a fervor that blew away any symptoms of rust. They seemed to gain power as they worked through the album, peaking with a raucous version of “St. John The Divine” before cooling off with solo closer “You Could Die (Or This Might End).” And it really was a full band effort. Marty Key, now in his fourth year with the Pharmacists, provided a meaty, energetic low end which managed to hold songs together despite Chris Wilson’s mixture of machine-gun drum rolls and almost feral pounding. And James Canty, who played on the original album sounded as vibrant as he ever has as a Pharmacist, mostly eschewing his signature tambourine for inspired back and forth guitar work with Leo, best seen on the outro to “Squeaky Fingers”.

While Monday’s show was about making new fans and playing to the crowds, Tuesday at the Fireside showed Ted and the band in classic indie rock form. Members from the band hung out at the bar before the show, shaking hands and taking shots with the fans in the unaffected manner born by years of D.I.Y. touring and a genuine modesty and humanity.

Rachel Ries
An “indie lifer” such as Ted Leo would never stand for a review glossing over the opening bands and both openers this week are certainly worthy of coverage. Rachel Ries played a lovely set on Monday night as the sun set over the Chicago skyline. Her band included a pianist, drummer and upright bassist and they were well suited to capture both the subtlety of her jazzy and folky ballads as well as the sweet snarl of the few country rave–ups she sprinkled in for good measure. Ries has a true gift for writing emotionally insightful but direct lyrics that pair perfectly with her band’s sense of texture. After pulling out a surprisingly earnest and accomplished solo cover of OutKast’s “Elevators (Me and You),” and closing with a singalong that prominently name checked our fair city, I was hopelessly enchanted.

Just as Rachel Reis’ summery strumming suited the al fresca wonder that was the Millennium Park show, Chicago’s art/dub/funk innovators The Eternals were the perfect act to get the sweat rolling at Fireside. I’ll have more on them later in the week, but their set was inspired enough to make Ted Leo tweet, “EEEEEYYAAAAAAAAH I wanna move to Chicago and just be in the Eternals!!” Enough said.

About 15 minutes after the Eternals had finished and Leo and the Pharmacists had set up their gear, they launched into the same song they’d closed with the night before, the Damned-like “Where Was My Brain”. This caffeinated rocker set the tone for the night as Ted and the boys pulled equally from their five albums, showing that a decade of touring has made them lean and furious performers with a catalog containing nary a dud. It was one of those shows where I kept waiting for a lull in the set to run back for another beer and found that it never came.

The Fireside In All Its Dilapidated Glory
Ted also showed off his punk roots on Tuesday with a shaky but clearly off the top of his head cover of Billy Bragg’s “Between The Wars.” He also slipped in a verse of the Waco Brothers’ “Pigsville” and a full band version of “Angelfuck” by his beloved Misfits.

The differences between Millennium and Fireside were interesting. The rhythm section which shone with the Pritzker’s immaculate sound system, was mostly washed out by guitar fuzz at Fireside and responded by skimping on frills and pounding out rhythms impossible not to dance to. The songs were generally shorter, harder and louder on Tuesday but they shared a common thread. The personal emotion and experience that each Pharmacists’ song seems imbued with was just as clear belted across a park or shouted to 150 in a crowded bowling alley.

In their heyday, The Clash proudly declared themselves “The Only Band That Matters.” Due to shifts in musical tastes, the media and patterns of cultural consumption, I know that it is no longer possible to make such a claim. But after two nights of pounding music that left my ears ringing, my shirt drenched and the tightness in my chest from politics, work and life suddenly gone, that was no longer true. Maybe it wouldn't be strictly accurate to call Ted Leo & the Pharmacists “The Only Band That Matters” but every time I see them live, they make me forget that fact.

Enjoy some sweet samples and a taste of Ted live.

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