Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
w/Hint Hint, the Cripples
Thurs Feb 27, Graceland, 9:30 pm, $8.
Somewhere along the way, Ted Leo became a rock god. Okay, not in the long-flowing-mane-and-tight-leather-pants sense of the phrase. But his deification can be seen in countless articles and reviews, where salivating writers scoot words like "venerable," "genius," and "icon" next to his name. And across the web, the level of Teddy appreciation is steadily approaching Chris Carrabba heights. Fans swoon over his rousing power-pop songs, literary references, and cerebral wordplay, and recount tales of being so enraptured by his live performances that they've either fallen in love with the person standing next to them or found salvation in Leo's loving indie-rock embrace.
A good-natured, if slightly uneasy, laugh bursts across the phone line as Leo--trapped as much by my pointing out this unwavering devotion as by the blizzard that's turned his northern New Jersey neighborhood into a Siberian wasteland--tries to reconcile this with his own sense of humility.
"The funny thing is that a lot of the people writing that stuff are people moving up the journalistic ladder, maybe people who have been fans for a long time and waiting in the wings to be able to write that stuff about me," he muses. "And until recently, I'd been playing pretty tiny shows around the country. So if I read something really appreciative from someone in, say, Phoenix, but I know in my head I only played to 10 people there, that becomes especially awesome to hear. Because you know you're not some Jesus rock star, since there were only 10 people there, yet you know that you were really nicely getting through to somebody and affecting them."
Still, his days of playing near-empty rooms have faded faster than the cigarette-pack pockets of a hipster's jeans. After 15 years in the musical trenches--most notably as the frontman for '90s D.C. mod-punk band Chisel and as a touring guitarist for the Spinanes, before going solo a few years ago--Leo is watching the underground murmurs morph into something far bigger. Prominent profiles in Rolling Stone and Spin, as well as an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien a couple of weeks ago, make it much more likely that you'll be scrambling for a scalper's ticket come gig night than listening for crickets between songs.
"It'll be interesting to see what it's like, because it'll be the first time that I've gone on tour kinda riding this wave of mainstream interest all of a sudden," says Leo. "I feel like every time I've gotten on stage up to this point, I've had the advantage of always being in this underdog position, where I'm hungry and I have this mission in front of me--like, 'You may not like me, you may not know who I am, but tonight you'll leave my friend!' My hope is that even if this tour is packed every night with people who are really into it, I'll be able to put forth that energy and that kind of a show."
The 32-year-old singer/guitarist and his band, the Pharmacists, seem eager to live up to the hyperbole. And as many a Leo-phyte is quickly discovering, the group's excellent new album, Hearts of Oak, is a huge step in that direction. Sounding a bit like the Jam or Elvis Costello & the Attractions had they signed to Dischord Records, the combo brings the perfect amount of rhythmic angularity to its catchy, jubilant pop hooks. Above it all, Leo offers a refreshingly passionate, earnest voice, ruminating on issues both personal and sociopolitical--a stylistic tone that's garnered comparisons to Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer--though never with self-righteousness or, thankfully, anything resembling an overbearing emo-whine.
"There's obviously some very specific stuff on the album about what's going on in the world right now," says Leo, pointing to "The Ballad of the Sin Eater" (about an American who travels to other nations, where he's held accountable for the actions of his government), and "The High Party" (which tackles the role of the artist in the face of global insanity and looming war).
"A lot of the album is about understanding where you stand in society," he continues. "There're people on the left who are gonna co-opt things for their own ends and people on the right who'll do the same thing, and you've just gotta wade your way through that minefield and figure out who you are. I constantly question myself as an artist, but I know that every day some song or other piece of art is what propels me on to the next day and helps me negotiate that minefield. So in that sense I feel all right about trying to do that with my life, and maybe for others, too."