Ted Leo prescribes punk to Pearl Street

By Dean Curran

Courtesy of Myspace

Last Thursday, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists performed at the Pearl Street Clubroom with opening act Bear Hands. In their decade-long career, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have earned a reputation for their highly progressive style, dabbling in genres such as folk and dub reggae while remaining grounded in punk rock. Ted Leo is the band’s creative element and only constant member, while the current Pharmacists lineup consists of guitarist James Canty, drummer Chris Wilson, and bassist Marty Key. The current tour is in support of their fifth studio album, “The Brutalist Bricks,” released this year on Matador records. Their performance Thursday night was energetic and volatile and left the audience reeling in their dexterous intensity.

Bear Hands provided a solid opening performance, having just released its first full-length album, “Burning Bush Supper Club,” on Cantora records. Bear Hands’ brand of indie rock was ambient and surprisingly danceable. The band is composed of guitarist Ted Feldman, drummer TJ Orscher, bassist Val Loper and guitarist/keyboardist Dylan Rau on vocals. Loper and Feldman also handle percussion, which makes their live performance particularly entertaining as they bang on tom-toms, cymbals, and maracas when they aren’t handling their primary instruments.

Bear Hands was fitting as a supporting act. Though the two bands sound very different, they have some parallels in their approach. Both groups came into music through punk rock, though they have since expanded and are informed by a host of other genres. Bear Hands also incorporates experimental elements into accessible songwriting, much like Leo. However, its style is further removed from punk than the Pharmacists, with reverb-laden and almost psychedelic guitar accompanying choppily angular rhythms. Its sound worked best when it was more rhythmically fluid, and lyrics such as “everybody knows that crime pays/and everybody does it/everybody knows that crime pays/and everybody loves it” were downright obtuse. Still, they did a great job at pumping up the crowd for the headliner.

The Pearl Street Clubroom was packed by the time Ted Leo and the Pharmacists took the stage. After a brief sound check, the group launched into “The Mighty Sparrow” and immediately immersed the listeners in their mix of madcap delivery and soulful melody. Equally impressive was the band’s unrelenting stamina. Despite the fact that Leo turned 40 this past September, he maintained his fiery delivery for almost two hours. They performed a great variety, including such hits as “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” and “Me and Mia,” as well as a number of songs from “The Brutalist Bricks.” Seeing the songs from the new record performed live only emphasized the album’s strength, as “Mourning in America,” “One Polaroid a Day,” and especially “Even Heroes Have to Die” were some of the set’s highlights.

Leo is almost as compelling in his stage banter and personal anecdotes as he is in his music. In between songs, a member of the audience randomly shouted the Pokemon tagline, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All,” at the band. Confused, Leo said he was “really feeling the generation gap.” He explained that at first he thought the kid was referring to All, the Los Angeles punk band formed by members of the Descendents after singer Milo Aukerman went to graduate school. The band is known for its theme, a one-second, one-chord song in which the members scream “All!” in unison. The Pharmacists looked at each other as if telling an inside joke, and then performed “All.” This drew laughs from veterans of the punk scene. Leo also told the story of a show he unwittingly played at a 21-plus venue in Northampton years ago with his old mod/punk revival band, Chisel. The vast majority of the people that had come out for the band were underage, so Chisel went so far as to turn the stage configuration to face the window and play for the kids outside.

The Pharmacist’s set showcased their talent for combining the visceral nature of plain-and-simple punk rock with their developed musical prowess. Over infectious three and four chord progressions, Leo tore into a flaring solo that seemed to soar across the club. Drummer Chris Wilson is clearly a learned disciple of American hardcore, for his rapid-fire delivery never once loosened its iron grip on the beat. Leo played two solos during the encore, only to be joined by the Pharmacists again for a rousing performance of “Timorous Me.” They concluded their last song with a crashing, anarchic soundscape, leaving the audience reeling in the afterglow of  awe-inspiring musical experience.

Dean Curran can be reached at [email protected].