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Serious Beeswax: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, April 8 at the 9:30 Club

April 15, 2010
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Ted Leo has toured the country so many times in the three years since he last released a new album that it felt almost strange to see him play at Washington’s 9:30 Club recently with an actual product to promote. Last month’s The Brutalist Bricks is the New Jersey-based singer-songwriter’s first album to crack the Billboard 200, and though Leo still puts on the same kind of stripped-down rock’n'roll show he and his Pharmacists band have for nearly a decade, there was one small, goofy indulgence of showmanship: four large fake bees, vaguely modeled after the Brutalist‘s cover art, hung above and around the stage.

The bulk of the new album was on display, with Leo opening with the current single “The Mighty Sparrow,” but as usual that left a lot of time in the 90-minute set for trips through his back catalog. The next song marked the return of an older live staple, “Heart Problems,” that’s no doubt gained some new relevance with its lyrics about the health issues of the uninsured. The audience was in high spirits throughout the show, but seemed to whip up an unpredictable intensity the longer the set went on. The frenzied “Where Was My Brain” inspired some crowd-surfing, and toward the end of “Bottle of Buckie,” one gutsy girl hopped up onstage, danced with Leo for a few measures, and then planted a kiss on his cheek and jumped backed down to the floor. With characteristic nervous energy and humility, Leo simply said “fair enough” and immediately began the next song.

The quartet played most of the new album’s selections fairly straight, the one exception being “One Polaroid a Day,” for which guitarist James Canty switched to an organ that was higher in the mix than on the record, drummer Chris Wilson put a bit more energy into the tom-tom fills, and Leo sang in a much higher register. But when playing tunes from their hardest, most road-ready album, 2004′s Shake the Sheets, Leo and Wilson slipped back into their old habit of juicing up the tempos to absurd degrees for songs like “Little Dawn” and “Counting Down the Hours.”

In recent years, Leo’s set-lists have taken on a certain ritualistic pattern, particularly on the back end, with most night’s ending with a mix of solo encores, cover tunes, and songs from the sentimental fan favorite, 2001′s The Tyranny of Distance. After ending the main set with “Biomusicology,” Leo returned for a solo run through “Bleeding Powers” and a gorgeously passionate rendition of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues.” And then, he began “Timorous Me” as a signal to his bandmates to return to the stage for the second half of the song and the closing songs “Parallel or Together?” and “Stove By a Whale.” It was all fairly predictable to anyone whose seen a Pharmacists show in the last few years, but the energy of the crowd, the homecoming vibe any time the former Washington resident comes back to play, and an especially spirited run through the classics made it a night to remember.

Image by Shawn Brackbill

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