Rock Review: Ted Leo & the Pharmacists

IMG_4545Eighteen years after he started Ted Leo & The Pharmacists here, the band returned to D.C. for a spirited pair of shows this weekend at the Black Cat after a long absence, gladdening fans with his driving older material even as he attempted to show a new direction with his new.

It’s not completely a completely inverted approach, as the tarot-card like cover of his new Kickstarted album “The Hanged Man” may indicate. Indeed, may of the new songs purposely match the legendary velocity of yore. But other times, accompanied by an acoustic guitar, the use of which he felt he had to apologize for each time, or even more surprising, beginning a song solo at the piano in the shadows (the venue light system, for one, not being able to adapt to such a shift), he made clear he wanted to try things out in a singer/songwriter mode.

Already he dropped the name of his band from the self-released album, though it appears on the marquee of the tour he was kicking off — replete with familiar players as guitarist James Canty, bassist Marty “Violence” Key, and the much-in-demand drummer Chris Wilson (who is also now part of Titus Andronicus as well).

They were augmented by saxophone player Adrienne Berry and guitarist Ralph Darden, a pair who also contribute backup vocals and have a tendency toward skronky experimentalism with their respective instrument.

One of the most dashing and personable men in rock, Leo certainly had an album to sell — he played 11 of its 14 tracks, all told, but would intersperse them with the driving older songs that fans came to hear, from “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” to “Me and Mia.”

He knew he had a lot to get through, so he eschewed the charade of encore, which would have come between “Biomusicology” and “Bottled in Cork,” he let us know. He also tried (and failed) to get through the first four songs before taking a breather or saying hello. He made it to three before he had to do another thing that was at odds with his D.C. punk roots: tuning.

Leo, at 46, looks the businessman should he have chosen to become one; instead he’s kept to his guns and is driving forward in music, even as his songs open up a bit to express some of his own life and recent tragedies, such as a miscarriage.

Being off the road for some years (except for touring with Aimee Mann) seems to have preserved his voice into staying a remarkably pliable and expressive one.

What he recorded largely by himself in his home studio in Warwick, R.I. took on depth and breadth with the big band backing.

After that surprising piano song, “The Nazarene,” he brought back a couple of songs he “recorded here in D.C.,” “Parallel or Together?” and “Under the Hedge,” before reverting to a more familiar  touring posture in recent years — solo with electric guitar — to do a Grant Hart tribute on Husker Du’s “She Floated Away.”

His new one, “Lonsdale Avenue” sounded good solo with guitar as well (though the recording also featuresMann, with whom he recorded as The Both four years ago).

Politics were a bit of his concern on the album and in concert. He pledged his support for the Juggalo rally that was just about to take place in town and showed disdain for the world at large with his “Let’s Stay on the Moon” and with outdated patriarchy on “William Weld in the 21st Century.”

He was supportive, too, of the opening act, the newly assembled TK Echo, whose Chris Richards, (the Washington Post rock critic) used to open for him in the 90s, as part of the D.C. band Q not U.

Leo said he took to heart Richards’ encouragement about breaking out and expanding one’s approach, and his current turn may be attributed in part to it. It was just about the best shout out an opening band can get from a headliner.



The setlist for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists Saturday was:

  • “Moon Out of Phase”
  • “The Sons of Cain”
  • “Mourning in America”
  • “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”
  • “Can’t Go Back”
  • “The Angels’ Share”
  • “The Future (Is Learning To…)”
  • “The High Party”
  • “Anthems of None”
  • “Heart Problems”
  • “You’re Like Me”
  • “She Floated Away”
  • “Lonsdale Avenue”
  • “Me and Mia”
  • “The Nazarene”
  • “Parallel or Together?”
  • “Under the Hedge”
  • “William Weld in the 21st Century”
  • “The Little Smug Supper Club”
  • “Run to the City”
  • “Let’s Stay on the Moon”
  • “Biomusicology”
  • “Bottled in Cork”
  • “Timorous Me”
  • “Little Dawn”


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