Ted Leo sans Pharmacists. It’s an interesting prospect. His songwriting, teetering ever intriguingly between anti-establishment punk and romantic, pensive indie-rock — all infused with a certain charming East Coast Irish spitfire — is sufficiently strident to survive on guitar and vocals alone. And, as Leo proved last night during a headlining solo Noise Pop performance at Bottom of the Hill, his personality is strong enough to be in no need of support on an otherwise vacant stage. Yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was missing. I suspect I'm not alone in this: Ted Leo without a rhythm section is like Justin Timberlake without glistening pectoral muscles: he may not need it to survive, but he’s not necessarily better off without it.
The evening opened with a set by local act Angel Island. Clever name, hard to Google. Next came Kevin Seconds, the frontman of long-running hardcore punk band 7 Seconds, who played a set of loosely folk-inspired acoustic rock. It was okay. Another San Francisco band, AB & the Sea, played third; their classic pop/rock sound, often Beach Boys-inspired, hit and missed but always felt just fine. When it finally came time for Leo to perform, the clock read 10:40. This was a school night, folks!
One thing is for sure: This man can play. And sing. I suppose that’s two things. On songs like “Bleeding Powers,” “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone,” and “Timorous Me,” his hyper-speed strumming revealed his punk roots. But he can also work a lead — not showily, just right. Eschewing solo-show tradition, he never set down his electric guitar, heavily distorted as it was, to opt for an acoustic — even though a few were leaning in the corner. As for his singing — at one point he expressed concern over an ailing voice in the midst of a solo tour, but for all intents and purposes it sounded perfect, hitting all the high notes exactly where they lay. The likes of “Me and Mia” and “Gold Finch” were spot-on.
Leo may not have reached the visceral highs his music is known for in its full-band form, but he did hit most of the emotional marks. And even when he didn’t, his fans paid no mind; they drank up the whole of his performance, much as they did bottles of Berkeley’s own Trumer Pils, on hand for $4.50. Leo, meanwhile, pounded bottles of water. Now here was a pro.