PopMatters returns to era of relative innocence with a one-night-only snapshot of our era's most tortured and talented songwriter.
Editor's note: This review originally ran on PopMatters in 2000. The assembled Black Cat crowd trends much younger than I'd for whatever reason anticipated. The under-21 outnumbers the grownups by something like 3-1 or greater. Being DC, I guess I expected all these now-aging indie rock scene types from back in the day descending upon the club for the "big show". That's kind of the way it works in Philly for these more hyped-up events. (being from the Philadelphia area, I had made the 3 hour drive southwards expressly to attend this show since the Philly show was even more "totally sold out" than DC.) Opening band duties fall to Ted Leo and his newly-assembled band the Pharmacists. You may know Ted from his guitar and vocal duties in DC pop-core sensations Chisel, who made a couple fine records before breaking up a couple years ago. More recently, Ted put out a truly, horribly self-indulgent mess of a solo album that ranks as my biggest recorded disappointment of all 1999. I'm happy to report that Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are a pretty good band, reverting a bit to that Chisel brand of pop-rock, with a bit more emphasis on rock. Several numbers saw Leo's self-indulgence reemerge primarily in the form of guitar solos that went on too long, but the guy still knows how to write a hook, and going back to the full band approach seems to anchor things to home base a little better for me. I'm looking forward to their forthcoming EP. The majority of the crowd seemed pretty uninterested in the opener, though, which I thought odd considering Chisel WAS a pretty respected DC band. The only reason I could think of to explain the seemingly brain-dead choice of sadistically miniscule venues for certain stops on the tour (*ahem*Philly*ahem*) was that, unlike his Spring 1999 tour (which I was fortunate enough to see twice, once on each coast), this one would be completely a solo acoustic guitar performance rather than with a "plugged-in" backing band. My hunch is proven correct during the changeover, when a solitary microphone and chair are placed onstage. One might guess that a larger-scale US tour will follow the upcoming April release of fifth album (second for major label ewwies DreamWorks) Figure 8. Appearing perhaps paradoxically more comfortable and outgoing alone behind his guitar, Elliott solicits requests (that for the most part he doesn't heed) from the crowd ("old stuff or new stuff?") after the first five songs, the only selections of the night that seemed to have been consciously chosen in advance. In fact, he's loose throughout most of the night, chiding the crowd for being to quiet ("I guess I'll just have to work through it"), and making the occasional quip in between songs -- After finishing "Needle In The Hay", the dark examination of heroin addiction that inaugurates his eponymous first Kill Rock Stars record, he offers up Either/Or's decidedly brighter "Say Yes", noting "this one's happier, it cancels out that last one". You bet it does. Indeed, the rollercoaster of moods effect seems to be a favorite theme of Smith's, and tonight's show is no exception. The dark introspection of the set opener "Son of Sam" (also the first track on Figure 8) morphs into the blissful optimism of "Say Yes", to the bitter character indictment of "Easy Way Out" (a standout Figure 8 track I haven't been able to get out of my head since the first time I heard him play it last spring), all bound together with an almost effortless sense of continuity. My sole vexation for the night, aside from the fact that only "Independence Day" is showcased from 1998's wonderful XO, is that the set doesn't go on nearly long enough. To carry the "mood-coaster" motif from "macro" song-chunking to "micro" lyric examination: on XO's "Bled White", Elliott Smith sings: "happy and sad come in quick succession". Unfortunately, at the close of a scant hour's worth of singer-songwritery nirvana, I wish both happy AND sad had stuck around a little longer.