Lion’s heart 

March 15, 2000: Emo’s. Austin, Texas (SXSW Music Conference)

 

Ted Leo stands alone at center stage. In front of him an ocean of gossiping industry hacks and Lone Star-guzzling punks have jammed the venue to see the roster of bands on pop-punk stalwart Lookout!, a breeding-ground label for the Donnas, Operation Ivy and Green Day. Leo is dressed in makeshift sailor garb. As he sets up his one-man-band act by plugging a guitar into an amp and a couple arcane effects pedals, the air in the room is equal parts smoke and skepticism. The general ’tude: If sailor boy sucks, fuck it, we’ll just walk next door and catch Man or Astro Man?.

But 45 minutes later, as Leo ends the set breathless, his guitar looping a blur of distortion, the place is still packed. He’s sweat-wet and his white sailor pants have two fresh black stains, accrued when he dropped to his knees mid-set onto the beer/spit/mud-soaked stage.

Impressive as it was, it’d be a misstep to say the ferocity of that evening’s performance was a watershed moment in the songwriter’s career. Fact is, he took the stage that night at SXSW with a decade of leading fringe rock bands in New York, DC and Boston under his belt. The most successful project on his résumé, a DC quartet named Chisel, had created a sizable blip on hipster radar with its post-Attractions mod pop, and Leo’s fairly experimental post-Chisel projects had been making little ripples in the NYC rock underground. Sure, those expecting Lookout!’s standard fare were wowed by his disarmingly earnest solo set. The select few in the know knew what was what.

 

May 13, 2000: The ’Sco. Oberlin, Ohio

Leo opens a three-band bill. The middle act is the Holy Childhood (fronted by his kid bro, Danny) with headliner Guided By Voices. After GBV frontman Bob Pollard slurs drunkenly into the mic about how GBV could’ve treated fans to a bigger set if “the fucking opening acts didn’t play so fucking long,” Leo hurls a pitcher of beer at the stage. The evening ends in a mess, as the brothers Leo both receive an ass-kicking at the hands of a mob of corn-fed, knuckle-dragging footballers who apparently shared Pollard’s observation.

If you ask Leo about that fateful night he’ll probably laugh it off, or sandwich it with any number of other horror stories from his decade of touring.

A few days ago, he posted just such a story on his Web site (www.tedleo.com) about a gig with Chisel nearly a decade ago. The band reached Portland, Ore., midsummer and the club, though sparsely attended, was hot as an oven. During the set, Leo asked the promoter if he could have a 7-Up from a cooler at the back of the room.

“He said, ‘For a quarter!’ I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t,” Leo writes on the post. “I sputtered through the sweat dripping down my face and across my mouth, ‘Well, can’t I pay you after we’re done playing? Can’t you take it out of our pay?’ He just stared at me, then made some quip about, ‘What pay?’ which, since we’d only drawn 20 people, was a legitimate question, but I was kind of dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe that he was going to not only not offer me a soda for busting my ass on stage, but was going to embarrass me in this way in front of an audience that was actually there to see us as well. I had a serious existential crisis at that moment. What the fuck am I doing here? Why am I giving it up in this way every night? Why are people so petty in their power struggles? Is this all there is? Just then, a person stepped out from the 20-person crowd, put a quarter in the promoter’s hand, and walked the soda up to me on stage. It’s largely due to that small gesture that I’m still playing music today, and in years to come, I got to know that person better, and count him as a friend. That person was Elliott Smith.”

Shortly after Smith’s death from alleged suicide, Leo talks about their relationship.

“Probably the Elliott situation cuts closer than a lot of other similar things might have happened for me,” Leo explains. “We didn’t see each other very often, but we had this weird bond. When I would see him and we would sit in the corner of some crowded place and he would unload and vent about record labels and drug problems and all this stuff for hours. I wonder sometimes why he felt comfortable doing that with me. And, personally, I saw him as a foil character in a way. I looked up to him in a lot of ways and, ultimately, I was rooting for him. The fact that that he wound up not making it,” and there’s a long pause, “is weirdly affecting.”

At first it might be difficult to see Smith and Leo as foils. On first listen Smith’s mournful acoustic ballads have little to do with Leo’s electric proto-punk. Smith’s major label career had exposed him to millions of fans worldwide, while Leo’s path from one indie to the next has seen a much slower growth. But the earnest quality of the two songwriters parallels them sharply as distinctive voices in underground music. Though Smith’s audience was vastly bigger in numbers, both have an eerie cult appeal, both fan sets know every word to each song and stand in the front row singing along to prove it.

“I don’t think of it as a cult thing,” Leo contends. “I guess I notice a different vibe from the shows in the last few years than ones when things were starting out. … People aren’t just there to fuck around and see their friends anymore, it’s like they’re there participating in something.”

 

Dec. 3, 2002: The Shelter. Detroit, Mich.

It’s Tuesday night and people are participating, shouting requests between songs. When Leo’s “Stove By a Whale” drops to a snare drum backbeat and guitar, every pair of hands in the room is clapping along. Toward the show’s end Leo delivers the patented indie rock mantra: “We have stuff for sale in the back,” and “If anyone has a place for us to crash. … ” People swarm him at the merch table after the set.

This response has become commonplace since Leo released 2001’s Tyranny of Distance to a nearly unanimous chorus of critical adoration. He’s toured and recorded without pause for two years and his face has started to surface more and more in media outlets. New people started coming to shows and die-hard fan weren’t let down.

“I only started to see that happening this past year,” he says. “To have people come out to shows and react the way they do is really, really, really awesome and really, really, really humbling. … If you start picking it apart it might lose its magic.”

 

Feb. 13, 2003: NBC Studios. New York City, N.Y.

Three days after the release of the band’s third record, Hearts of Oak, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists play the Conan O’Brien show to an estimated audience of more than 2.1 million viewers. For a guy in his early 30s still living with his parents, this event is without precedent.

 

Oct. 5, 2003: The Bottom of the Hill. San Francisco, Calif.

Leo has been on the road for more than six of the last 12 months, performing either with a band or alone, canceling only a small stretch of dates after his larynx collapsed at a show in Urbana, Ill. Tonight is the final date of a recent solo tour and judging from the packed midweek showing at the small club, you might liken Leo’s welcome to that of a returning hometown favorite. Northern California is a whole country away from the songwriter’s New Jersey home. He blasts through an hour-long set of his songs and covers of Billy Bragg and the Jam. There are a couple of encores.

Nearby, someone apparently still not satisfied by the live set starts playing Hearts of Oak on their car stereo. Leo stands by the club’s front door chatting with people who have formed a kind of receiving line as the record’s mournful opener, “Building Skyscrapers in the Basement,” pours from the car windows. We hear Leo’s recorded voice rise, “I know some things I’d rather not, like the time ahead is all the time you’ve got.” Thankfully, he couldn’t be more right.

Nate Cavalieri is an itinerant critic for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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