Ted Leo And The Pharmacists at Turner Hall
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Flashback to 2007: Ted Leo And The Pharmacists’ Living With The Living had just come out, and the glowing reviews were describing a punk rock album. The band had recently left Lookout Records for Touch And Go, but if Ben Weasel had any inclination to cry “sellout,” nobody was listening. Yet the radio was playing pop nuggets like “Colleen” and “The Unwanted Things,” which, in hindsight, are probably more punk than anything Blink-182 was putting out, but still yanked annoyingly on the ears and sensibilities of old-schoolers who cared about the term “punk” at all.
Fast-forward to Turner Hall Ballroom, July 27, 2011, the kickoff party for WMSE’s Radio Summer Camp: A properly strummed Gibson still produces punk rock, and Ted Leo still sounds like the East Coast equivalent of the ’90s Bay Area movement that brought the underground screaming into the mainstream. There was little semblance of Leo’s flirtation with FM stardom last night, nor very much of the political banter the charismatic for which the singer is known. (A quick acknowledgement of Wisconsin solidarity was about it.) Instead, it was straight-up, supercharged rock ’n’ roll for a little more than an hour, with the kind of genuine working-class angst that instantly makes bands like The Gaslight Anthem sound phony. The energy began to flag a bit toward the end, until the dynamite math-rock/noise jam set-closer. Fans were treated to a fairly lengthy encore as well, which was a just reward for two bras and one gross sweat sock that some ardent admirers hurled onstage.
Leo’s set started early thanks to an auspicious finale from proggy sludge duo Tweak Bird. The band was about a half hour into its ripping, Deerhoof-meets-Melvins onslaught when the head tumbled off Caleb Bird’s guitar stack and crashed to the stage, leaving brother Ashton to bang out a brief, unplanned drum solo. “Can I get a little more guitar in my monitor?” Caleb quipped. The Bird brothers made an impressive din, shifting between rhythms and styles quickly, and created a fascinating paradox of darkness and light with down-tuned, chugging guitar and pummeling percussion juxtaposed against their lighthearted, Geddy Lee-ish vocals.
Opening the show was Milwaukee’s own Call Me Lightning, the perfect gunshot to spark the marathon five-day music festival. Nathan Lilley’s voice was a bit hoarse to stretch for the high notes but, for the most part, that was barely noticeable. The band’s thunderous update of The Who’s proto-punk attack could hardly be contained in a room so small; despite the band’s abrasive aesthetic, it’s easy to envision the galloping anthems from last year’s masterpiece, When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free, washing out over an amphitheater.