Live Leo

Ted Leo/PharmacistsIt was a year and a week ago that I wrote about Ted Leo/Pharmacists to little notice, but I’m still listening to these records, “The Tyranny of Distance” and “Hearts of Oak,” at least once a week. If anything, I think that what I once saw as Leo’s self-imposed and short-sighted limitations — his obsessive desire to re-create a sound and an energy often deemed lost to the 20th century — now seem more like a very selectively chosen milieu, a platform for an oeuvre. It was always that, of course, but I was reluctant to see it. Now, having watched the rise of a horde of bands who have worked out the science behind a way-back machine down to a decimal point, it’s more apparent to me than ever that Leo’s work is, first, classier and more thrilling than anything else in thrift store clothes, and second, actually forward-looking.

All of this occurred to me when I was watching “Dirty Old Town: Ted Leo/Pharmacists vs. Coney Island,” a rockumentary that captures the band’s summer 2003 performance at the Siren Festival. It’s a short, cannily cozy profile of the band that reveals not a heck of a lot about the man or the music, but that probably deserves a rank among the best-looking and best-sounding independent concert films you’ll ever see. The filmmakers do a lot with a little, which is part of the problem.

A little too often, the film succumbs to its own sense of industriousness, convinced of its own cleverness even as the filmmakers indulge themselves too readily in cheap camera tricks like slowing down and speeding up handheld footage. Nevertheless, it manages to capture perfectly the frenetic pace of its subject matter, which alone redeems it almost entirely. Watching Leo and his band writhe on stage like loose power lines on a highway shoulder — channeling the spirit of an impeccable record collection tempered with the conviction of unabashed idealogues — is one of the realest things that rock music has to show for itself at this stage in its history.



  1. His songs and performances are just great, plus he *works* so dang hard, you have to love him.

    The first side of _Tyranny of Distance_ in particular is just astonishing to me.

  2. Yeah, he works very hard, apparently. Leo’s work ethic is actually one of the more appealing revelations in this concert film. You don’t see rockumentary subjects driving around their own vans and hauling their own amps very often… I’m not sure I ever have before. Before I get assailed on this point… I realize that, in the indie world, musicians hauling their own equipment from gig to gig is colossally humdrum. I guess it speaks to the transformative effect of film that seeing it done here makes it somehow more interesting.

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