If you think punk rock is dead, get yourself to a Ted Leo and the Pharmacists show -- immediately.
When the genre was being sodomized in recent years by Good Charlotte and its ilk, Ted kept on chugging, presumably right through grad school, to middle age. Along the way, he clearly went through a Pixies phase, expanded his vocabulary to include words like “subvert” and “goad” (“I’m probably subverting this song by telling you this, but I’m not going to talk very much because there’s a curfew. But now you’re goading me into talking,” he told the Wash U-student-dominated crowd), and conjured up some seriously righteous political indignation.
The result is last night’s show at the Gargoyle. Leo held his vow to keep the talking to a minimum, and tore through a twenty-plus-song set list that drew from his entire catalog.
Those who have only heard Leo’s albums will likely argue that the sound is decidedly not punk rock. Live, however, the songs are performed in a blistering double time, which, combined with Leo’s falsetto yelps, results in a much harder sound. Hell, with the low ceilinged, low-budget feel of the Gargoyle, it even felt like an old-fashioned punk rock show in your cousin’s basement.
There’s a saying that a punk band is only as good as its drummer, and Leo is no exception. Pharmacist drummer Chris Wilson, looking like the homeless caddy in Happy Gilmore, beat the hell out of a stripped down six-piece kit, splintering half a dozen drumsticks in the process. As for the rest of the band, Leo picked up a new bassist for this tour, and performed with a second guitarist, a change from his standard three man line-up.
But as the group’s name implies, Leo is the main attraction, and he did not disappoint. He unleashed some searing guitar riffs, displayed some truly pained looking facial expressions as he strained to hit his trademark high notes, high-kicked around the stage and departed drenched in sweat. He also discussed his fondness for Melville and Billy Budd: Sailor, a nugget of minutia gleaned thanks to a fan in the audience who felt the need to repeatedly declare his passion for exceedingly dull nineteenth century romanticism.
Such is the dichotomy of Leo, who eschews traditional punk trappings in both sound and dress yet, as last nights’ show illustrated, still manages to master the angry young man’s genre. Leo even says as much as he crys in, “Counting Down the Hours,” “If I told you I felt ageless, would you tell me I’m not old.”