Ted Leo, Reaching Back To the Brits

Monday, December 10, 2007

With its rootsy vigor and folkie lyrics, Ted Leo's music could be dubbed "Americana" -- if only it didn't sound so British. On Friday, playing the first of two nights at the 9:30 club with backing trio the Pharmacists, the singer-guitarist occasionally recalled fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen. But the parade-ground beats and quick-retort chords were much closer to the Clash and especially the Jam, a major influence on Leo's D.C.-based '90s band, Chisel.

As an almost-hometown boy, Leo was relaxed and informal. He chatted at length and interrupted his own material for a mini-set of short songs by Government Issue, an '80s Washington punk band whose singer, John "Stabb" Schroeder, was badly beaten near his Maryland home in July. Leo's own music is more expansive and melodic than that of such predecessors, and not quite as aggressive. The performer bounced about the stage as if his legs were springs, and the group's dual guitars were used principally for synchronized bursts.

Leo played about two dozen songs, a few of them too similar to the rest. When he varied his sound, it was with styles filtered through British post-punk, such as the Celtic folk of "A Bottle of Buckie" or the reggae of "The Unwanted Things." Indeed, one of the show's highlights, "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?," was a tribute to the Specials (the song's bridge addresses some of that band's members by name). In the studio, such devotion to his influences sometimes inhibits Leo, but at the 9:30 club he confidently pushed his way into his heroes' company.

-- Mark Jenkins

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