Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ted Leo at The Barbary 12/14/08

Transportation troubles abounded for the Ted Leo/Cale Parks show at The Barbary Sun., Dec. 14. Parks, the Brooklyn-based electronics fan and pseudo-percussionist opener, lost some chunks of his rental car’s engine. On my end, my bus-riding, concert-going partner got lost somewhere on the outskirts of King of Prussia, wandering up and down the 202 highway on foot. A rescue mission was coordinated between his girlfriend and I. And as for headliner Ted Leo, well, the weariness of the road in general was tearing at him, as he amicably told the crowd through a series of anecdotes. In the last month or so, Leo’s gotten pulled over for speeding four times. He nearly died in a blizzard trying to get from Boston to Buffalo. But he did finally check out this one vegan restaurant somewhere in Pennsyltucky that he’s driven by dozens of times.

For all this hassle, thank goodness that show turned out so nicely.

Cale Parks specializes in sound collages and ambient vocals, which only synchs up with Ted Leo’s style if you count his experimental Tej Leo(?), RX / pharmacists album. All told, Parks was a decent, though somewhat lackluster, opener. He kept his set brief. He often avoided speaking directly into mic. Clearly owing a debt or two to Brian Eno, Parks’ music is ethereal yet dance-oriented. But it lacks a certain drive. With the exception of “Every Week Ends,” his live drumming never went beyond the simplest of notes. The preprogrammed beats weren’t that much more complex either. While minimalism can be a virtue, Parks’ compositions often seemed like the electronic equivalent of a grade school band recital. I kept waiting for “Hot Cross Buns,” to no avail.

Leo, however, was not lacking in energy or dexterity. He walked in through the front door, went to the stage, plugged in his electric guitar, and, after a few mock cock rock poses on the monitor, proceeded to tear through his set list. The first few songs went over well, with the highlight being a cover of “Nobody’s Driving” by Amebix. Later, Leo started cranking out older tunes like “The High Party” and “The Sword in the Stone,” to even greater applause. But while his originals are mighty fine, it was Leo’s covers and conversational skills that made the show truly great.

See, Ted Leo is the sort of the guy that, if you talk to him, he will talk back. The two of you will have a discussion. When he thanked the crowd for applauding after a song, one fan said, “You’re welcome.” This provoked a five minute dialogue about the performer/audience dynamic (and a running joke for the rest of the night). Another fan asked him about his Amebix cover. This later segued into a chat about Leo’s take on band reunions (Amebix good, The Specials bad, The Mescaleros… dubious), which in turn provoked a debate about whether or not Leo should cover “Johnny Appleseed” (Sadly, he didn’t). He told us about traveling versus “being on the road.” He talked about headlines that tickled his fancy.

The Barbary’s intimate settings allowed for a much more personal set than the one Leo gave at The Electric Factory with Against Me! a couple of months back. Surprises (The Misfits’ “Angelfuck?” Wha?) blended easily with more predictable choices like “Colleen.” Even without a band, tunes like “Little Dawn” and “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” sounded loud and raw and passionate. Leo’s guitar playing had a nervous energy to it, which got the better of him when he tried to mimic the tin whistle solo on “A Bottle of Buckie” and had to switch to whistling after two failed attempts. He played this double flub off quite charmingly, though.

After about 85 minutes of music and conversation (with a surprisingly tender take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” near the end), Leo bid the crowd adieu to hurry home to their Comcast digital cable. The night turned out great in the end, as Leo’s set felt less like a rock show and more like a conversation with a good friend. Overall, the strong set list and friendly atmosphere made for a good show. Afterward, I drove my buddy home, and he showed me how to get back to I-95.

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