By Dave McKenna
Saturday, April 10, 2010; C01
Early in Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' Thursday show at 9:30 club, guitarist James Canty told the house stage crew that "the spotlight" was "kind of freaking us out." Canty was talking literally: The light show in place was too busy. But, in figurative terms, Canty spoke the indie rocker's ethos.
Bandleader Ted Leo has been not quite getting the spotlight for a couple of decades. Most of his former peers on the D.C. rock scene moved on to other careers long ago. But for a sweaty 90 minutes at his sold-out performance, Leo showed he's not close to giving up.
Leo turns 40 this year. He's been getting attention for his peppy pop rock since coming to D.C. in the early 1990s with Chisel, a band he formed with fellow students at Notre Dame. At the time, this town was at its pop rockiest, with several guitar- and Mount Pleasant-based bands (Velocity Girl, Tuscadero and Chisel) getting brushes with national stardom by adding scads of melody to the edgy "harDCore" sound that had ruled the roost.
But college radio playlists can only keep bands together for so long. After Chisel's demise and his own departure to Boston, Leo put the Pharmacists together in 1999, and he's the only Rx'er that has stuck with the group throughout its run through four record labels and five bass players.
The 9:30 club set included much of the band's latest release on Matador Records, "The Brutalist Bricks," and those tunes had similar ingredients: Bassist Marty Key and drummer Chris Wilson kept the low-end thumping to keep up with barrages of downstroked and trebly chords from Canty's and Leo's guitars.
Wilson was pounding his kit so hard he went through drumsticks the way Lady Gaga goes through outfits. There's little place for midrange tones or single-note leads in Leo's songbook, but it's a wonderful sound -- think early Who records and anything by the Jam.
As a vocalist, Leo is also an Anglophile. These days his singing recalls nobody so much as Joe Jackson: "Gimme the Wire" and "Bottled in Cork" were "I'm the Man"-era Jackson, "Ativan Eyes" and "One Polaroid a Day" was Jackson after he turned down the guitars and anger. The great "A Bottle of Buckie" had Celtic flourishes. And Leo delivered "Bleeding Powers," a song for the young and restless that Leo said he wrote right after leaving Mount Pleasant for Boston, while alone onstage and pounding on his overdriven guitar, a la Billy Bragg. "Little Dawn" opened with a U2-like assemblage of echoed guitars and melodic bass lines.
The show also had plenty of local touches. Leo observed that while he was only a temporary Washingtonian -- his bio lists him as an Indiana native, and he currently lives in New Jersey -- he'll always be identified with the nation's capital. "I'm not really from here," Leo said. "But it's a really nice homecoming." And the current Pharmacists' lineup includes James Canty, a native with personal (Nation of Ulysses) and family (brother Brendan Canty was in Fugazi) ties to area cool kids' bands. Canty brought his mother to the show.
No song in the set will break the Top 40 or cause a brighter spotlight to shine on Leo. But the hopping spree Leo went on during the encore of "Stove by a Whale" -- he leapt right out of his guitar strap at one point -- made plain the wisdom in his decision to not quit the stage. Whether in a sold-out club at 40 or in a Mount Pleasant basement as a relative youngster, life can't get much better than playing rock-and-roll and hopping around.
McKenna is a freelance writer.