Anger is an energy

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
with Screaming Females
8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13
The Social, 407-246-1419



July 10, 2010, wasn't the best night in Ted Leo's touring career. That evening, he and the Pharmacists, his lively indie-punk band, played at Skully's in Columbus, Ohio, to a house sprinkled with hecklers. The trouble started during soundcheck: As Leo fiddled with his guitar, its strap broke and the instrument fell. Loud laughs came from the audience. Without pause, Leo took the mic and went on the offensive, declaring that he didn't find the fall funny and it was his only working guitar left on the tour (an airline had damaged the rest). The show, he said, would sound terrible because of his equipment. After the performance was underway (it sounded fine), a female near the front told Leo that she'd trekked from St. Louis to see him. He mentioned this from the stage and, for no good reason, some clod yelled, "Fuck St. Louis!"

This, too, caught Leo's ire, and he reprimanded the guy for demonstrating no Midwestern camaraderie. Be- tween songs, he'd frequently return to and analyze that dumb comment. In another instance, he and a listener exchanged words once the stranger apparently insulted cats, and when Leo asked the crowd what they wanted to hear, one disembodied voice snidely responded, "The radio," again agitating the musician.

While it could have just been an off night for the guy, the hostile, awkward experience demonstrated something larger about his character: Even after being a musician for two decades — probably longer — he's willing to face all the opposition he can, both responding to critics and taking snipes of his own. Instead of diminishing over the years, his moxie is as strong as ever.

As a songwriter, Leo has an intriguing history. Cutting his teeth in Chisel, a punk outfit started in the early '90s at the University of Notre Dame, he founded the Pharmacists in 1999 and has since amassed a discography jammed with smartly carved songs. Hopscotching between styles — angsty, blue-collar pub rock, laid-back reggae, singer-songwriter stuff, among others — Leo has a firm grasp on nuance.

On "Timorous Me," he makes his love for an old memory of a friendship feel genuine, and "Me and Mia" is an eating disorder allegory more beautiful and insightful than any teen drama. However, when provoked, Leo can easily trade the gentle persona for soapbox hero. Backed by a gang chant and a staccato punk thrust, he used "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb" to question the value of one country (presumably us) dropping tons of bombs on another. He ranted with far more than a shred of bile in his voice.

The Brutalist Bricks, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' latest album, carries on his curious balance between erudite and pissed. While his metaphors have become in- creasingly difficult to decipher (get back to me once you figure out "Gimme the Wire"), you know when he's peeved: "The Stick" skittishly snaps against the government ("Election time again / I wish that I was dead"), while "Mourning in America" picks a fight with those who don't sufficiently understand the gravitas of the country's bloody history.

It's not as if Leo is the permanently ultra-stoic sort, but the way he embraces confrontation — with hecklers, with ideologies, with journalists — makes him a youthful, intimidating force capable of making many profound points. For your own sake, don't cross him.

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