It’s hard growing up — especially if you’re into punk rock. As you age, power chords, schizophrenic drumming, and frantic screaming becomes… immature. For musicians it’s daunting because hardly anyone wants to see a middle-aged punk rocker, sporting a receding hairline, some worn out flesh, and an attitude befitting of a 17-year-old. It didn’t feel right when the Sex Pistols reunited a few years back and it’s hardly working for the majority of punk acts stripped from the ’90s. (We’re looking at you Dexter Holland.) But there’s a way to solve this. As a band ages and matures, so should its music. Angsty anthems become heartfelt stories, while blind aggression swelters into focused agendas. It’s the only way punk acts can age without becoming nostalgic novelty acts.
Ted Leo never has to worry about this, though.
The New Jersey-born songwriter may sound like he’s fronting a punk band, but he’s rattling off stories deeper and more timeless than half of today’s best-selling authors. And if last Saturday is any indication, where he blitzed a sold-out (admittedly plastered) crowd at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge, fans of all ages can revel in the band’s “punk rock” sound, without worrying they’re out of their element.
Nine albums into his career, Leo hasn’t sounded better. He’s sharp, he’s witty, and he’s resourceful. Every hook is supported by a memorable melody, or a bouncy bassline, or a punchy drumbeat, or… You get the picture. His latest effort, The Brutalist Bricks, translates remarkably well on-stage. Songs like “Ativan Eyes” or “Gimme The Wire” ooze of energy and beg for crowd interaction, the latter coming off like a wild-eyed Replacements number. He’s hardly lost his knack for adrenaline, either. The Jersey boy kicks, jumps, and screams like a youthful Tim Armstrong. (He also sweats like an American diplomat in Tehran.) His presence is wild, but it’s constrained. It’s not a punk-rock show, but it feels like one, regardless.
Chicagoans adore Leo. They know his every word. New songs feel like oldies, oldies feel like… something else. When Leo jumped into “Counting Down the Hours”, off of 2004’s Shake the Sheets, you would have thought he pulled off a miracle. And material off of 2007’s unjustly criticized Living with the Living — especially “A Bottle of Buckie” — sounds as natural as even the greatest tracks from his seminal record, 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance. In hindsight, there really wasn’t a weak song on the set list, which makes you wonder if the man’s capable of mediocrity.
Towards the end, after finishing the last of the Brutalist tracks, Leo returned to play Eamon O’Doherty’s rousing IRA anthem, “Joe McCann”, which seemed fitting for the pre-St. Patrick’s Day festivities. The effort must have been on-the-spot because he stumbled through some of the verses, to which he exclaimed, “I should just look up the lyrics on my iPhone.” He didn’t though. Instead, he brought out Titus Andronicus‘ Patrick Stickles, who happened to be in town (The band played an in-store performance at Reckless Records earlier in the day.), and The Jai Alai Savant’s Ralph Darden, and the three of them led the rest of the band through covers of The Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, and The Misfits. It sort of became a quasi-punk-rock hootenanny towards the end. However, it never felt out of place. It was just enough; if you want to look at it one way, it was a nice kick in the head to remind those of “what was.”
But really, we’re actually pretty content with “what’s now.” Thanks Ted.
Photography by Heather Kaplan.
The Mighty Sparrow
The One Who Got Us Out
Me And Mia
Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?
Mourning In America
The High Party
Even Heroes Have To Die
One Polaroid A Day
Counting Down the Hours
Bottled In Cork
Dirty Old Town (The Pogues cover)
Gimme The Wire
A Bottle Of Buckie
Where Was My Brain?
Joe McCann (Eamon O’Doherty cover)
Timorous Me – From The Tyranny Of Distance
Nazi Punks, Fuck Off (Dead Kennedys cover)
Merchandise (Fugazi cover)
Angel Fuck (Misfits cover)
*Tip of the hat to Dan Caffrey & Aaron Burg for set list help.