Live Review: Ted Leo in Cleveland by Kiesha Jenkins

In the past few months, I’ve become pretty familiar with good ol’ highway I-90 in Cleveland. Last Thursday, your very own Rob Duffy and I hit the pavement once again – this time to see Ted Leo.

I hadn’t heard of Ted until early this year. It wasn’t until he and The Pharmacists appeared on Conan O’Brien one night that I took notice. Because I was at work, where the police scanner is always going (I work at a newspaper office), I didn’t catch the performer’s name or the beginning of the song. I can’t even tell you which song it was, but it mesmerized me. So I scoured the ‘Net and finally found that the magical man was Ted Leo.

After laying my hands on his newest CD “Hearts of Oak,” I was hooked. Full of political pop/rock, it was just what I needed to hear. Songs like “The High Party” and “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” were infectious and stayed in my head and prompted me to sing along, but fail because of the speed at which Ted sings (think David Spade and Chris Farley trying to sing along to R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” in “Tommy Boy”).

Waiting for a Ted Leo show was agony. I kept going back to his record label’s website and checking the dates. And finally, an Ohio date appeared. Thursday, May 1, at the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, Cleveland.I immediately made plans to skip my three classes of the day and Rob and I embarked on the trip.

Beachland is an interesting little place. There’s the tavern (where Ted played) and the Ballroom (where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played the following evening). The Ballroom looks like a high school gymnatorium, where proms might be held. The Tavern looks like a rec room or an Elks’s lodge basement from 1986. But it sufficiently held the rock that evening.

The opening band was The Gripweeds and they came along with Ted Leo from New Jersey. They were okay, nothing too spectacular other than the fact that two of the band members’ mother travelled along with them to sell their merchandise. And I’m pretty sure their father was videotaping the show. There were a few die-hard fans in the audience and they were absolutely rocking out to this band. The weird thing was that they didn’t match the sound. The band was a quiet sort of rock, almost folksy in a way, and these fans looked like they were on their way to a Metallica show. Old Metallica.

The second band was The Reputation from Chicago. They were better, but all I could think of during their set was the fact that it would have been so much better if there hadn’t been so many technical difficulties. The lead singer’s high-heeled shoe was falling apart, so she basically ripped the sole off and then stood there lopsided. Then she broke a guitar string. And there were other problems as well. It was all very distracting, and made it hard for me to focus on the music, which Rob later told me was actually really good.
(During these two sets, Ted Leo was wandering around I couldn’t get the nerve to just approach him and start up a conversation, though I desperately wanted to.)

Finally, Ted and his band approached the stage and began to set up. There were tambourines aplenty and Ted and the guitarist each had only one guitar. This struck me as unusual, because most of the bands I’ve seen recently have at least two up on the stage, and I wondered what would happen if either broke a string.

The show started. Although the Tavern wasn’t packed, it was nicely filled, and most of the crowd pushed up toward the stage. I got a good look at some of the kids and realized I have no right to call myself an Indie hipster. These kids knew how to dress.

And rock. As soon as the first note was struck, the place lit up, with dancing and head-bobbing all around. Ted played songs off of “The Tyranny of Distance” as well as “Hearts of Oak.” When he got around to singing “The Ballad of the Sin Eater,” he put his guitar down and, as Rob put it, “testified.” He pantomined the entire song, making fun hand movements. The line “working on the railway” prompted him to make a hammering motion, and “when I woke up all beaten and bloody” caused him to smack a tambourine against his head in rhythym to the music.

Then disaster struck. Just as the band launched into a song from the first album that the entire audience wanted to hear, a pickup on Ted’s guitar died. After fiddling with it for about five minutes, he finally announced that we’d have to hear everything in ‘clanky, rhythym guitar.’ Some drunk girl in the back shouted out “Timorous Me!” and he responded by saying, “That’s just me and the guitar!”

But, the show went on. It sounded perfect to me. I bounced and bobbed along until the end, and then watched as rabid fans grabbed the two set lists before I had a chance to get them.

Waiting until he’d packed up most of his stuff, I finally withdrew my copy of “Hearts” and a silver Sharpie and approached him. I shook his hand and asked if he’d sign my CD, and then decided to confirm a rumour I had heard.

“I have a question for you,” I said. He looked up. “Is your birthday September 11th?”

He paused for a moment, as if thinking, ‘What a weird question to ask,’ and finally said, “Yeah, it is actually.”

I grinned a little. “So’s mine.” He broke out into a smile and gave me a high-five. “All right!”

Rob chimed in that his hometown back in Jersey is the city right next to the city that Ted currently calls home – Bloomfield. Ted smiled and shook Rob’s hand and then turned back to me to tell me that we also shared a birthday with D.H. Lawrence and someone in Fugazi’s little brother.

We then purchased a copy of “Tyranny” and a sweet 12″ vinyl of “Hearts” and bid Ted a goodnight, and the assurance that we’d see him in either Akron or Bowling Green, where he plays in June.

I’ve already got it marked on my calendar.

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