Concert: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Friends and I, since the mid-90′s, have had this running debate:
True or false: Bad fans make for bad bands.
I had always gone with True, beginning with the Dave Matthews Band, of which I used to be a fan, of which I am not proud.
It’s pretty straightforward. I thought Dave Matthews and Carter Beauford and the rest were good musicians. When they weren’t jam-banding, they recorded good, tight pop songs, and not of the type I otherwise heard. With no older brother to recommend better, more sinister fare and with hip English teachers still battle-ranking the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews was a pretty inventive guy for me. I . . . liked him.
But then I went to a Dave Matthews Band concert in ’97, and I saw the type of person my fanhood made me. Apparently I wore Abercrombie. And white ballcaps in support of the University of South Carolina (“Go Cocks!”). And I got up on my womenfolk, who didn’t care they were being got up upon. And if I checked lefthand fingertips, I would have found light calluses of those just learning to play guitar—a little “Ants Marching” from the newbies, a little “Satellite” from the more-accomplished, a little “Back to Being Friends” from the especially lascivious. And I pre-partied in the parking lot with my guitar, my dudes, and an illicit case of Beast.
In reality, I was there with my best friend and my dad. We were plain-looking and very sober. My friend and I struggled through the concert, wishing, I guess since we weren’t dating them, that the girls in front of us would try to cover up and stop squealing.
After the concert we sat in my dad’s car—parking-lot gridlock—and blasted Pearl Jam’s No Code two times all the way through, just to regain that nobody-likes-this-album-except-us-because-we-have-secret-knowledge feeling that turned me, one day, into an indie kid.
Hating a band because of its fans helped me jerk a knee on many occasions. I turned down a chance to hang out with The Wailers (as in Bob Marley and . . .) because it meant hanging out with the off-campus potheads. I dismissed southern rock because, at my southern school, it smelled of frat parties and racism and turned-up shirt collars. And Phish, in an example of permanent musico-fandom intransigence, still forces me to lie, to deny that they have any talent whatsoever. They don’t. Completely untalented. Freakin’ hippies.
In contrast, it’s a sign of maturity, some say intelligence, when a person can integrate conflicting opinions and express something much more nuanced and, well, true to life.
So, then, we come to the Ted Leo and the Pharmacists concert held last night at the Somerville Theater.
Let’s start with the fans. Boy, did I get the icks from the people there. Not from the few old farts like me (I’m 25) but from the high schoolers by the stage and up the aisles shaking their not-yet-legal groove things.
Here’s a distillation of comments between my concert-partner and me:
1. “And which song would she be dancing to?” (About the girl in pigtails stageside who was in the process of sweating through her shirt by exorcising her inner Elaine Benes.)
2. “Quick, compliment her on her nice top.” (About the crestfallen girl at the end of our row who was in the process of being stood up.)
3. “Oh, honey, no.” (x 10)
I’d spent the day in the n-trillion degree summer heat, had fashionable burns as proof, and wasn’t up for the youthful idiocy that’s a sign of a good band’s demise. I watched it happen to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I’m seeing it happen to the Boston band Read Yellow. But I love Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. I don’t want it to happen to them!
Things didn’t look good early in the evening. The “Oh, honey, no” girls lined the stage to epilectically support the first opening band, Somerville’s own Spitzz. The biggest compliment I could give the Spitzz would be to talk about their music, so I won’t. I’ll mention these things: the lead singer spit on his own photographer, the guitarist made out with someone in the Somerville Theater box seats after their set, and all four members seemed so disinterested in one another as fellow-performers that I wonder if they even hang out offstage.
In the middle of the card was the NYC band Radio 4, whom my concert-partner and I like. They’re professional and clear-headed, it would seem, about their music. That is, no pretension, even though they had semi-futuristic personas. A good set, start-to-finish. (It was distracting, though, that their percussionist was, in the right light, a dead ringer for Colin Firth. I’d like to write the story of how Mr. Darcy suffered one tragedy after another before finding his true calling as a bit player in an indie band.)
Still, the fans at the Somerville Theater drove those of us aware of the Social Security crisis to fear for the future and want to flee before Ted Leo and the Pharmacists ever took the stage.
Moreover, even when the band did enter and Ted Leo needed to touch up his guitar’s tuning, an assclown yelled, “Isn’t tuning something you do before you come out, Ted?” A flabbergasted Leo choked on a breath and responded, “Ugh, what the fuck, man?” (Said assclown repeated the inquiry later, after which a brave concertgoer offered to escort the assclown’s face through the floor.)
I feared the worst. I was fully prepared to make a public disavowal of Ted Leo’s music (a touchy subject for this site, indeed) completely because of the crowd. But then . . . But then . . .
They fucking rocked.
Ted Leo and Pharmacists integrated everything that makes snobs like me love them and everything that makes know-nothing kids love them too.
They nailed all the moments—Leo answered people’s quirky questions between songs, the band took more than a few requests, and Leo even wished a happy 11th birthday to Eva, the daughter of family or friends who happened to be seated right in front of me (this girl, by the way, restored my hope in concert-humanity more than once by rocking out at the all the right times). Leo thrashed around the stage. Drummer Chris Wilson showed off the most entertainingly jellyish arms I’d ever seen behind the kit. And Leo and bassist Dave Lerner played really clean, melodic lines within otherwise punky (or Irish) progressions. Together it made for the most impressive—and somehow intimate—power-rock concert I’ve heard in years.
In short, it didn’t take more than one song to see Ted Leo was a mature performer, one who played at his limits and didn’t let his body or stage-fright or whatever it is that gets in the way of younger performers like the Spitzz get in the way. Knowing the right thing to say or do and how to play off it—like breaking out Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” as an encore, as they did—that makes for a good concert. It’s what Ted Leo has and the kids bouncing at the front of the stage didn’t (creating a new adage: when it doubt, stand still and listen, foo’).
And seeing that performers know how to appeal to all those things—maturity, immaturity, remembering to say hi to an 11-year-old, and telling a bad joke about heaven and Bono (which Leo also did)—is enough for me to admit: bad fans don’t make for bad bands.
Sigh. Except for Phish.