Ted Leo can sure fill a venue. So far this year, he’s played four shows (that I know of) in Chicago, including this one, and all have been positively jam-packed. Putting out the best album of the year (Hearts of Oak) will do that, especially if, as in the case of Ted Leo, it comes on the heels of what remains the best album of the budding millennium (2001’s The Tyranny of Distance).
So, yes, it warms the heart to see that an artist as good as Ted Leo, even if he has received relatively little press, can pack ‘em in. All that aside, after being elbowed by frat boys and having SNL-like “Drunk Girls” blow smoke in my face, I was very glad that a band like Oneida was there to play some loud, scary rock ‘n roll.
Oneida are touring with Ted Leo in support of their new album, Secret Wars, due out this spring, as well as their soundtrack work for the demo-derby documentary Speedo, work which the band’s website describes as “the Pink Flag of classic cock rock, if that makes any sense to you.” If the soundtrack stuff they showcased live was any indication, it actually does make sense. The song they played from Speedo (which, they insisted, is “by Oneida”) has far more mid-‘70s swagger than your average Oneida song, but still has all the pumping abrasiveness needed to run the frat boys out of town. Oneida seem affable and timid, but once they start playing, they can thrash around with the best of them. Kid Millions, in particular, is the most hyperactive drummer I’ve seen who wasn’t just doing a Dave Grohl impression (Note to the drummers of the world: Please, keep your shirts on). Other highlights included “Snow Machine” (which, the band insisted, is “by Oneida”), a song that sounds almost Nu-Metalish before Oneida toss in a good ol’ fashioned noise-rock freakout.
Ted Leo toured with the Pharmacists early in the year for Hearts of Oak, and toured again a few months back on his own in support of the (mostly solo) EP Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead. Now he’s on tour with no new material to support, which can be awkward. This tour, however, has much to recommend it over the previous two, with Leo playing both solo and with the Pharmacists, offering the best of his album and EP material.
In terms of sheer impressiveness, the solo songs win out. Leo manages to create fully realized songs with nothing but his voice and his electric guitar (especially on his cover of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”). At this point, most critics scramble to pull out their Billy Bragg references. For my money, the speed and intricacy of Leo’s vocals make those solo songs far more difficult to pull off live than anything that wonderful, heartsick British politico has attempted. During this show, Leo almost certainly broke the record for most words sung in an hour, and did it sounding natural and even. Beyond that, the original songs “Sword in the Stone” and “Bleeding Powers” sustain the high level of songwriting on the Hearts of Oak songs, and offered a great counterpoint live. Quite a few Tyranny of Distance songs fulfilled that purpose, too, even a few surprising ones. “Biomusicology” and “Timorous Me”, of course, made an appearance, but it was with great glee that I witnessed “The Great Communicator”, and, most shockingly, the use of “Stove By a Whale” as a epic, arena-rockin’ closer.
There’s no need, really, for me to run through the list of all the already-classic Hearts of Oak songs that Leo performed, but I should try to convey how hearing one after another live could turn even the most composed, cerebral critic into a gushing, blubbering fanboy just as quickly as “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” can segue into “The High Party”. Leo himself seems unsure of what to make of suddenly being a rock star. Most of the bands that play at places like the Fireside Bowl, however talented they may be, don’t inspire the kind of Beatlemania-like screaming that was showered on Ted Leo.
This contradiction, of course, says something important about Ted Leo’s music. It’s accessible enough that his fans don’t feel required to keep an ironic distance, but it’s raw and edgy enough that he’s not filling the United Center, either. I’m putting myself at great risk by saying this, but Ted Leo’s music is the quintessential “Next Big Thing”, if something like that even exists.