“The future is learning to wait around for things you didn’t know you wanted to wait for,” is a key line on Ted Leo’s new album, and if you went along with his self-deprecating humor at the Black Cat on Friday night, you didn’t know you wanted Ted to turn into a standard singer-songwriter. And while Leo did some things his younger self might have winced at — playing an acoustic guitar and sitting down at the piano for a solo number — his sprawling performance was a crackling affirmation that his recent lack of activity has hardly dimmed the live-wire spirit that informs his best work.
The 47-year-old Leo is emerging from a period of personal and professional turmoil, the startling and heartbreaking details of which were laid out in a Stereogum profile in July. But resilience in the face of tough times is one of Leo’s most inspiring qualities. Backed by a five-piece version of his longtime backing band The Pharmacists, Leo threw himself into a set that spilled over into the early minutes of Saturday morning — and consistently crackled with emotion.
Leo’s new record, “The Hanged Man,” which was recorded at his home in Rhode Island, marks the first music issued under only his name and his first since 2010 (aside from a 2014 collaboration with Aimee Mann). It was also at the heart of Friday’s performance. Eleven of its 14 songs were featured, underpinning the set with a swirling melancholy.
While the chiming power pop of “Can’t Go Back” and “Run to the City” struck familiar Leo tones, the somber churn of “Moon Out of Phase,” “William Weld in the 21st Century” and “The Nazarene” (which began with Leo alone at the piano) conveyed the somber bewilderment of his latest songs. The most striking was the grim “Let’s Stay on the Moon,” which Leo called “sci-fi gospel.” That tune featured the vocals of saxophonist Adrienne Berry, and her brass contributions gave the Pharmacists an unexpected soul-punk swing, as well as the occasional squawking edge.
Leo played a short solo interlude, which included the aching “Lonsdale Avenue” — the best song on the new album — and Hüsker Dü’s “She Floated Away,” a tribute to the recently deceased passed Grant Hart.
The crowd that filled the Black Cat to near-capacity for the first of a two-night stand (Leo asked if anyone was interested in checking out the Juggalo March on Saturday afternoon) wasn’t swamped with entirely new material, though. They reacted with joy to roiling Leo staples such as “The High Party,” “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone” and a glistening take on “Bottled in Cork,” which featured Leo on acoustic guitar.
We’ll all have to wait for the future to see if the somber “Hanged Man” is a signpost for a new direction in Leo’s career, but Friday’s wide-ranging show made one thing clear: Ted Leo ain’t turning into Jim Croce anytime soon.