Ted Leo and the Pharmacists has been one of the defining bands of the new millennium for me. I can conjure up The Tyranny of Distance at will. “Heart of Oaks” floats through my head when I walk down Grand Avenue in downtown L.A., as does “Timorous Me” whenever I think back to only a few years ago before I headed to the big city, or further back when I remember friendships that seemed to dissolve without reason or animosity. We wax nostalgia by way of objects that we claim for ourselves — photo albums, newspaper articles, heritage, and especially music. Ted Leo provides us with such an opportunity.
On Wilshire on the night of October 30, Leo proved the heartfelt nature of his musical autobiography. Only one other artist I’ve seen this year — Craig Finn of the Hold Steady — seemed to transfigure himself onstage by the very act of performing. Like Finn, Leo looks to the past for musical inspiration, specifically to the working-class rock of the ’70s, figured in punk, Springsteen, and AC/DC. Both songwriters’ lyrics move introspection into observation and narrative. But where Finn sees the mundane as moments for exuberant reflection, Leo creates his own mythos out of the emotional. When critics are disappointed in a track like “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.,” it’s because that personal mythic quality isn’t there anymore. We can’t connect with a punk protest song.
But to see Leo, guitarist James Canty, bearded and wily-eyed drummer Chris Wilson, and, in the wake of Dave Lerner’s departure, new touring bassist Marty Violence do their thing live is exhilarating. The four shot through “The Sons of Cain,” “Me and Mia” — the cymbal signaling Leo’s cry, “Do you believe in something beautiful?” filled the theater like an earthquake shakes the ground from its epicenter — “Army Bound,” “The Angel’s Share,” and “Lost On the Way to Load-In” before finally releasing the tension with a “Happy Halloween!” Leo likes to chat a lot — “We were all gonna dress up like Chris, but we’re lazy as shit” — but his feel for the crowd and dialogue comes off as naturally as his lyrics do.
The first hour was heavy with Living with the Living (2007) and Shake the Sheets (2004). We saw Leo lift his body up on his toes, elongating his already lithe figure, and fall into a trance-like state during the end of “Little Dawn,” when he chanted “It’s all right” for minutes on end. Literally trance-like: The song morphed into a trance version of Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” a song the band often plays live. As preposterous as it may sound, the cover seemed wholly free from artifice, and it’s a testament to the musicians’ command of the live show that it comes off the way it does.
For the encore, Leo came back to the stage alone, starting out boldly with a solo version of the complicated and lengthy “The High Party” (he did falter, the only apparent mistake of the night, but it hardly mattered). The band slowly rejoined him for the long-awaited “Timorous Me,” which had an additional measure of pathos; Leo dedicated the song to his friend and former Cringer member Lance Hahn, who recently passed away. The perfection of the song’s structure was evident in the way the band built-up toward the climactic join-in, with the other musicians slowly creeping back to their instruments. Every person in the El Rey knew that the highlight of the night was coming: They clapped along to “Now me and Jodie spent a lot of our time/ just sitting in silence/ driving late at night,” then jumped en masse to come crashing down, the shouting with Leo, “Maybe you could wonder/ what’s on each other’s minds/ this time.” Nicole Lang from Tralala joined in for the penultimate song, “Hybrid Moments.”
An hour and a half after the band struck its first note of the night, the lilting melody and fierce rhythm guitar of “Biomusicology” came to a close. And in the circular way all affecting music works, I walked back to my car and put in The Tyranny of Distance for the thousandth time.
“The Sons of Cain”
“Me and Mia”
“The Angel’s Share”
“Lost on the Way to Load-In”
“Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”
“Annunciation Day / Born On Christmas Day”
“Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.”
“I’m A Ghost”
“Counting Down the Hours”
Cover of Daft Punk’s “One More Time”
“Crying Over You”
“Who Do You Love?’
“Loyal to My Sorrowful Country”
“The High Party”