Baltimore City Paper

Backing Band Chemistry: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and Heks Orkest at the G-Spot, Dec. 7

[caption id="attachment_2356" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (photo by Shawn Brackbill)"][/caption]

When talking about Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, it's easy to focus on the first half of the name on the marquee, the indie-rock singer/guitarist who drives the whole enterprise forward. But with a punk pedigree, breakneck tempos, and heavier riffs than you're likely to get from the average literate singer/songwriter, Leo's songs have always demanded a killer backing band, and the Pharmacists have always delivered, particularly in their current lineup of drummer Chris Wilson, guitarist James Canty, and bassist Marty Key. Certainly nobody's more aware of that than Leo himsef, who exasperatedly wrote the following rant on his web site earlier this year: "I will walk away from the next interview that refers to James, Marty, and Chris as a ‘pick-up band' or suggests that the band changes all the time. I've been playing with Chris for 10 YEARS (and he hasn't SHAVED for the last 7 of them!) Marty for the last THREE, and James has only NOT been in the band for four of the last 11."

On Tuesday night, Leo returned to the G-Spot performance space after playing a solo show there two years ago, and this time he brought the Pharmacists, who were in rare form. Wilson and his infamous beard were, as always, the rhythmic engine that drove the band, whether it was the steady motor of "The Stick" or the runaway-train pace of "The One Who Got Us Out." There's a playfulness to his drumming, as evidenced by the way he plays the open hi-hat pulse of "The Angels' Share" with the left hand on every third beat, even though the song is in straight 4/4 time and has no accent on those beats. Sometimes his kick-drum timing might waver, but when a song demands perfection, like the very particular snare/tom fill that rockets "Me and Mia" into its final chorus, he delivers.

Key, the "newest" Pharmacist, has settled well into his role as the band's bassist, and has begun making his mark on Leo's songs with a wicked distorted fuzz on some of the more aggressive songs, such as "Mourning in America" and "I'm A Ghost." Canty, a Washington, D.C.-punk veteran—his best-known band is the Make-Up, a 1990s group in which Leo once played drums briefly—is generally a reserved stage presence, holding down rhythm guitar so Leo can focus on leads, solos, and vocals. But he was a little more vocal on Tuesday, quipping "you're fired" when Leo admitted he forgot lyrics on "The Angels' Share." Canty also played a key role in the accidental comedy routine that ensued when Leo returned to the stage solo to begin the encore. A fan jokingly requested the Make-Up's "I Am Pentagon" and Leo, mistakenly attributing the song to another Ian Svenonius project, Weird War, said "I wasn't even in that band," prompting Canty to open the backstage door and correct him, with comic timing worthy of a vaudeville routine. Leo completed the hilarious moment by ducking behind Wilson's drum set and briefly playing a Make-Up groove, before picking up his guitar again and playing fan favorite "Timorous Me."

Before beginning the current tour, Leo took to his Twitter account to invite requests for songs from his back catalog. And while most of the set was full of staples the band plays at nearly every show, along with about half of this year's The Brutalist Bricks, there were a few surprises that may have come from Twitter requests, including "The Crane Takes Flight," "Some Beginner's Mind" (which I had requested), and a cover of the Misfits' "Angel Fuck," which had gone over big at the G-Spot solo show two years ago. One of the benefits of Leo's politically motivated songwriting is that just about every time he tours, there's something happening in the news that gives one of his songs a newfound relevance. At March's show at the 9:30 Club, "Heart Problems" took on added resonance during the health care reform legislation debates, and on Tuesday, Leo appropriately dedicated the closing song "C.I.A." to WikiLeaks.

Opening band Heks Orkest is a quintet from Richmond, Va., that features members of several previous D.C. and Virginia bands such as Engine Down and Avail. And at first, the band sounded strange and off-putting, a hectoring vocalist shouting over lurching, ungainly postpunk with unpredictable time signatures. But as the set progressed, the appeal of the ingeniously intricate arrangements became more apparent, and the band appeared to be having more fun than anyone playing such deliberately nasty, inaccessible music should.