Day #107: The Tender Thrill – “One and Only One”
Ted Leo and I go way back. I don’t mean that I know him personally. But, this was a band that was on the now-defunct Lookout! label central to my high school and college years (Ted Leo came around when I was in college), before melodic Bay Area punk and suburban white boy ska died a necessary death. Not that Ted Leo & the Pharmacists fell into either of those categories. And, perhaps that’s why they’re still here and still sound fresh more than a decade later.
The band returned to their home base of Washington, DC this weekend, hosting two sold out shows at the Black Cat. The shows marked a milestone event, drawing the curtains on a the 10 year anniversary of their first album, Tyranny of Distance. And, a film crew was on hand to document the concerts (read two guys in hoodies with spiffy cameras trying to capture the hyperactive Ted Leo and his more static rhythm section). After some headache of squaring tickets to the show (and getting a lesson in the power of Craigslist for selling off extra tickets within three hours of show time), Philippe and I were in line for Friday night’s packed affair.
I like going to shows like these where the band has been around a couple of years, but were never a gigantic success, because the crowd is always a mixed bag. Kind of like when Jersey alt rockers, The Glands, and the New York-based Japanese duo, Cibo Matto, resurfaced in the last few years, playing sold out shows packed to the hilt with those who remember them fondly. That seems to suit Ted Leo just fine. Or at least, I assume it does. This is a guy who seems wholly devoted to making music and performing. He spent years twenty years in Citizen Arrest in New York and Chisel in Indiana before teaming up with the backing Pharmacists roughly more than a decade ago. And they exist in a space where they can still keep it real. Hang on to that relative anonymity and not be entirely occupied with promotions schedules and the like that comes with being mega superstars. And from the fan’s perspective, there’s still the sense of connection – that this is still your band, too.
Philippe was hearing Ted Leo & the Pharmacists for the first time at the show, but, judging by the age of the audience, I think I was in the same boast as everyone else: we knew these guys from way back when and were there to reminisce. And, it was a good crowd, too. One that didn’t take kindly for standing still much, and almost as soon as Ted Leo and crew took the stage, the fans were off their feet and in the air. And the band ran through a lot of old material first including my favorite, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” (I tried to convince Philippe to revive the rude boy look in honor of the show, to no avail).
The opening bands were a mixed bag, too. The Tender Thrill and Mary Christ are both DC-based newcomers, and it was cool of Ted Leo to promote new blood. There was an obviousness nervousness about them, though; neither of the bands seemed to have found their comfort zone. The Tender Thrills even seemed to lack chemistry among their own, and it’s probably premature to say that neither of the opening bands look like they have much staying power.
The Tender Thrill’s lead singer gave away the band’s vintage inspirations with his old, aqua-colored Epiphone. Theirs is a sound dominated by slow rock n’ roll of yore. The kind of music that gets the mind wandering, and I couldn’t get past how much the lead singer looked a shoe-in for an 80s movie younger brother type. Dimpled cheeks and denim jacket and all. But my favorite of all was their drummer who played so ferociously that he broke one set of sticks mid-set. I wonder how many he goes through in band practice.
Mary Christ was completely different. An older, all girl five-piece that is like a Riot Grrrl! zine personified. The lead singer came to the stage with short, greased hair, thick glasses, a plaid shirt and suspenders. And they played that sort of amateur mix of simple, gritty instrumentals and indiscernible spoken word. As nostalgic as music may be, I’m not sure how this kind of revival will go. Especially for a band that looks like they never left it behind.
But, so much for age, because Ted Leo’s another old veteran on the scene. At 41 now, he had to have about 15 years on the guys he was sharing the Lookout! label with in the last few years. But, still plays like the best of them, and goddamn, does this dude have energy. I don’t think it was a put-on. Some of the banter might have been for the cameras, but I don’t think anything else was. They played a good hour’s worth of mostly older material (Ted said: “one album isn’t really enough to fill a set, but we’ll get to that soon”) and showed no signs of stopping by the time Philippe and I cut out at midnight. (Give us a break, we are working stiffs). Everything trailed into these extended refrains of the best bits, much to the pleasure of the audience who got lost in it with them.
In ten years, the band has really developed their own brand of rock n’ roll. Something that was probably well ahead of it’s time, but might find even larger audiences to come. Not that Ted Leo would probably worry if it didn’t, he’s too busy making music.