Ted Leo and the Pharmacists @ The Black Cat, 12/3/09

Hometown heroes Ted Leo and the Pharmacists returned to a sold-out Black Cat on Thursday armed with a set heavy on new material from their upcoming record The Brutalist Bricks (their first album on new home Matador Records). Opening the night were DC’s Title Tracks, fronted by scene veteran Jon Davis, and Brooklyn’s Radio 4.

Title Tracks’ set delighted the early crowd with a mix of surf rock and jangly powerpop that would fit in a 60s AM radio playlist. Their Dischord debut It Was Easy drops early next year. Radio 4, with a dual-guitar/dual-vocal attack and danceable rhythms that owe much to Davis’ old band (Q and Not U), got the crowd moving to some serious dance-punk.

Forever DIY punks, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists took the stage and setup their own instruments. Their two hour set, marred by some early technical difficulties, was a treat for the Pharmacist faithful in the audience, even if twenty something songs didn’t allow for one of the frontman’s renowned stories. Still, Ted was engaging as ever (I’ve seen him a half a dozen times, both with the band and solo, so I’m pretty sure that warrants first-name-basis). “Fuck the public option,” he sneered. “I want free health care.” And to the incessant fans who request set staples, “Do you really think we’re not going to play [“Timorous Me”]?” This one garnered a round of applause, although he later remembered that the song was not on the setlist in Philly. Oops.

After kicking off with the raucous punk rockers “Heart Problems” and “Me & Mia,” bass amp problems led to a solo cover of the Pogues’ “Dirty Old Town.” The bittersweet nostalgia of those lyrics was a constant throughout the night, whether on their 2003 Thin Lizzy-riffed tribute to the Specials, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” or brand new stand-out “Even Heroes Have to Die.”

The band put on a powerpop clinic, with the urgency of punks from a bye-gone era. When singing, Ted looks like every note physically pains him; it isn’t pretty, but from the barked out chorus of “Army Bound” to his trademark falsetto, his singing is spot-on as he nails the tone of each song. Ted is joined by rhythm guitarist James Canty, playing with a ferocity that makes you believe in the power of 16th notes. The locked-in rhythm section of Chris Wilson and Marty Key provide an insistent, driving groove throughout the set. Wilson’s drumming is particularly astounding, as he effortlessly rocks out with speed and precision, so fast at certain points that astute listeners were sure he was using a double bass kick.

And while their technical skills are impressive, the strength of the work is definitely in Ted’s songwriting. New songs like “Where Was My Brain?” rock just as hard (or harder) as anything he’s ever written, returning to the well of DC hardcore from which he sprang. But it’s songs like “One Polaroid A Day,” with its infectious pop hook, where they really shine. Watch Ted play it at CMJ, and try not to sing and dance along. It’s impossible.

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