Ted Leo and the Pharmacists 

Juanita's, Nov. 6

There's something appealing about someone like Ted Leo who devotes intelligence to a life of rock 'n' roll. Not many rockers sing about vegetarianism these days and Leo is one of the few current artists who writes a decent protest song. Politics in pop can be grating, but Leo is rarely ham-fisted about it. The energy of the music comes first; the careful listener will find the message if he wants to. (Count “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb.” from Leo's latest album as an exception to this rule.)

Despite his steady output of records, though, I've found Leo's music to have little sticking power. Here's a theory to test: Most people who care enough to have one of his records have just one. If you know which one it is, you can make a rough guess at the album owner's age. (Mine is “Hearts of Oak.”)

The live show he brought to Juanita's last Tuesday with his band, the Pharmacists, was a reminder that, yeah, he's still around, and yeah, he's still good. The set was rapid-fire — except for a brief pause to replace the drummer's broken bass drum, there was hardly any lull or banter.

Even during that interlude, the bassist kept playing his line — to the song “One More Time,” by the electronica duo Daft Punk. When Daft Punk plays the song live, they do it with computers and vocoders on a large elevated stage while wearing giant motorcycle helmets. Hearing Leo bring the tune down to its most basic level made me crack a smile.

Later Leo launched into a song that sounded like a ramped-up version of Bruce Springsteen's “The Promised Land.” The vocals were muddied, though, and I couldn't tell for sure if it was. The conventional wisdom on Leo, or at least on his more recent stuff, is that it's derivative of straightforward '70s rock — Thin Lizzy is a name that gets tossed around — and the song, whatever it was, seemed to confirm that.

This is not a complaint, though. Leo's strength is fast guitar music with a snarl, and that's what he played. And, as usual, he rewarded the attentive listener, this time with musical quips like “One More Time.”

— John Williams


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