In terms of passion, poor Ted Leo seems to suffer from a burden of riches. Undeterred by his slow-grow cult status, he's been guitar-slinging in crappy DIY spaces and crashing on college kids' floors for the better part of two decades. He's weathered countless flash-in-the-pan indie trends, gone through one band after the next and found himself approaching his mid-30s with a blown-out voice in the middle of the Midwest. And though it's never added up to big dollars or high fame, Leo's fiercely indomitable career has made him one of the most adored underground songwriters around.
"I don't think of it as a cult thing," Leo says with a laugh, when asked about the ravenous set of fans that he's picked up over the past few years. "I guess I notice a different vibe from the shows in the last few years than ones when things were starting out. It's kinda hard to describe, but it's a positive thing. People aren't just there to fuck around and see their friends anymore, it's like they're there participating in something."
Participating is an understatement. Kids show up to his gigs in Leo's hard-won towns to stand in the front row to sing along with every lyric and clap along to the beat. "I only started to see that happening this past year," he says. "To have people come out to shows and react the way they do is really, really, really awesome and really, really, really humbling. It feeds so many different emotions simultaneously. It's also energizing to connect with people in this way that I always wished I could. It's kind of hard to describe and I try not to analyze that too much. I never want to expect it. If you start picking it apart it might lose its magic."
His magic of his usual backing band, The Pharmacists, lies in their ability to follow Leo's revved-up Celtic-touched soul/punk as close as a shadow, infusing the spirit of an updated Attractions with sweaty oomph. Together with The Pharmacists, Leo made two critically adored pop gems, 2001's "The Tyranny of Distance," and this year's "Hearts of Oak." Unique to the much-ballyhooed rock revival, they are records that offer style and substance and were met with a nearly unanimous chorus of critical adoration. It seemed like nothing could stop them.
Nothing -- except maybe Urbana, Ill. This spring, four songs into his set, Leo's larynx collapsed in the middle of screeching through "The Ballad of the Sin Eater." He managed to gargle though the rest of a shortened set, later posting a barbed apology on his website, "This is punk rock, not Dave fucking Matthews, right?" When a doctor confirmed the seriousness of the injury, Leo did something fantastically uncharacteristic ... he cancelled the rest of his tour and headed home.
When he healed up and decided to make up the shows, not everyone in The Pharmacists could do the gig. But true to his track record, it proved to be a minor obstacle. First, Leo decided to pack up the car and go it alone, doing a couple of months of solo shows that brought to mind a modern retelling of Billy Bragg's "Back to Basics." After he took a whole two weeks off, he hit the road again, this time backed by longtime bassist Dave Lerner and moonlighting Karate drummer Gavin McCarthy.
"Playing with just Dave and Gavin is great," Leo says. "Playing in a kind of power-trio environment is really fun for me, just having done the solo thing. I enjoy doing it as a break from having the full E Street Band. It bridges the gap."
But Leo's career seems to always be building bridges. At center stage with a slightly overdriven guitar, an Echoplex, and a fist full of politically laced anthems, his sweat-drenched, spirited performances don't require a backing band. Just listen to him half-yell his way though "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" He sings: "Hatred and shame, a racialist game ... cycles of blame ... someone sang me through it. Who?"
The only reliable answer he seems to be able to find is himself.