Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
New Jersey’s Gern Blandsten Records, offering “fine musical product for the socially unaccepted since 1992,” chose June 15 to celebrate its ten-year milestone (and the birthday of label founder Charles Maggio) by hosting a party at Northsix in Brooklyn. The lineup included Radio 4, Dälek, Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Pilot to Gunner, Jett Brando, and Oddateee, and the audience included me.
The fanfare started with rapper Oddateee. Not bad at all—he and his DJ had an admirable amount of enthusiasm, but opening acts rarely go over smashingly, and Oddateee’s audience wasn’t eating it up to the extent he would have liked.
This group of showgoers was passively receptive; Odateee’s taunts (cursing out the room and berating them for not dancing) didn’t cause the crowd to do anything other than chuckle politely.
It brought to mind the Brian Jonestown Massacre concert I saw earlier this year—when singer Anton Newcombe stormed offstage after a fight with an audience member. I thought the tantrum-throwing was a little silly, but I reserve a bit of empathy for creative-explosive personalities, so I didn’t join in the heckling. I liked the rock ‘n’ roll unpredictability and weirdness teetering on chaos. This time, though, the audience wasn’t giving anything back to the performer, not allowing for any chaos to transpire.
Of course, these jaded indiesomething New Yorkers may expect this sort of attitude from a boisterous African-American rapper (the media’s quick to stereotype hip-hop as being one thoroughly evil gangsta trip of pimping, dealing, and cop-killing, and even those who know better can have a hard time approaching the genre with an open mind). When rockers (not rappers) (and, face it, white rappers) affect a bad attitude, they’re seen as volatile, incendiary, poetic voices in the midst of the good fight. I picked up on Oddateee’s defensiveness straightaway, and even though I was impressed by his set, I generally like my performers a little less self-conscious.
The middle bands, Pilot to Gunner (whom I’ll be catching with Dälek at the More Than Music festival in July) and Jett Brando, delivered passable if unmemorable sets.
Jett Brando’s strengths are their standout melodies and jazzy guitar chords. However, their rhythm section seldom strays from a plodding indie beat. PtG had the opposite problem—- an ass-bludgeoning bass/drum combo, okay guitars, and amazingly average vocals. I’m usually willing to overlook one weak part if the others help create a successful whole, but the theme of the Gern party seemed to be “otherwise decent bands that give their vocals the shaft.” Radio 4 suffered from this; Ted Leo, a fabulous guitarist, tore it up with his Pharmacists, but marred his performance by singing in a nasal boyish squeak that recalled the worst of Ben Folds and Jules Shear. (Leo’s set won me over, though—cool points to him for tossing a familiar Tears for Fears riff into one of his songs.)
Radio 4 were clearly the hit of the party, but their stiffest competition came from Dälek (and his crew—going nuts with the Ensoniq mixer and laptop). Dälek (pronounced “Dial-lek”) is actually quite a nice guy, but you’d never guess it to watch him working a stage. He’s the David Thomas of the hip-hop world—a big, burly man (with avant-garde tendencies) whose skin can barely contain his crackling synapses and quietly brewing rage. Unlike Oddateee’s set, Dälek’s was very inward-focused, and yet Dälek was the one audience members really seemed to respond to. And he was riveting: tugging his end of the thick, tense rope while his DJ counter-tugged it into a realm of thunderous psychedelia, jazz, and metal. All the rhythms and sound-plundering made everyone hungry for the nervous, urban funk of Radio 4, who headlined.
Much is being said about Radio 4’s musical similarity to Gang of Four (the band everyone wants to reference these days), but Radio 4’s polyrhythmic percussion reminds me more of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads. They’re a better live band than they are an album band (as far as I know from one show and their recent Gotham! CD). Their weak point is the vocals, which are too thin and dance-partyish to stand up against such a wall of sound. But they have a definite stage presence and a good look—their outfits described by the show’s emcee as having been “stolen from the film Newsies.”
I don’t know whether Radio 4 are talented or accessible enough to follow the Strokes out of the gate and into the world-at-large, but right now they hold a rightfully high-profile position on the New York rock scene (along with Gern Blandsten ex-labelmates Liars). They may not be able to make it anywhere, but it’s kinda nice that they’ve made it here.