I’ve seen Ted Leo a grand total of one time prior to last week. And it wasn’t even at his own concert. No, it was at a tribute show for Joe Strummer. Which, if you’ve ever heard Ted Leo, will make a ton of sense. I’d already been a fan of Leo’s band, Chisel, whose CDs I’d ordered in that old-school way you used to order indie CDs: via USPS directly from their label, Gern Blandsten. Little did I know I was ordering those albums to be delivered to Leo’s hometown of Bloomfield, NJ. A few years after the band’s demise, but but I’d like to say that I was relatively early on the Ted Leo train. If there is really such a thing.
Now, Leo has had his ups and downs over the years. Or at least that’s what his website seems to indicate. Frankly, his output has also been spotty since 2010, with only a one-off collab with Aimee Mann, The Both, in 2014 and 2017’s solo release, The Hanged Man. It feels like life (and COVID) kind of intervened in there, which has led to a less-busy touring schedule. And certainly a less-robust release schedule. Which brings us to Outpost in the Burbs. Not really a concert venue so much as a really beautiful church around the corner from Hipster house in Montclair, NJ. But also a venue that they regularly use to feature singer/songwriters, authors and even some lead-singer types who want to work out their more folky solo work. In other words, Ted Leo and his electric guitar is probably as raucous as any concert here is ever going to get. After all, the guy is a former punk. Who graduated from Notre Dame. But, yeah, the audience was not about to get up and burn the church pews — or even do much beyond applaud politely and perhaps bob their heads to some of his more jaunty tunes.
Let me first say that a certain drug is legal in New Jersey. A certain drug in which I rarely partake. But did this evening only because it felt right. And, oh man, this both enhanced, but also made the experience kinda weird. Leo warned us that this was going to be a long evening. The man is a pro, and it seemed like perhaps it had been a minute since he’d played out. He talked to the audience about how he’d practiced for the gig. But also that he had cried a lot the night before. I don’t get the sense this was nerves per se, but perhaps because Shane MacGowan had just died? Or some unnamed person. I’m not certain. Point is, Leo seemed psyched to be out singing, and most likely had some stuff to get out of his head. The nice part was his intensity. His dedication to his craft. His voice is very strong. His pitch is pretty much perfect. And he can totally shred. That was the awesome part; just focusing on his voice and those great Chisel and Ted Leo songs I know pretty well. Less awesome was having to pretty much sit incredibly still on a relatively uncomfortable church pew for a couple hours. Time was a flat circle. And my ass hurt and I really wanted to stand up and walk around. Or stand up at the very least. But I was planted in my seat, like everyone else. I think music is meant to be enjoyed with more movement than none.
I wanted to shoot some video, but felt weird about it in these close quarters. So I didn’t. But that video would have shown a dude who is remarkably on his game. Despite making excuses about his voice, it sounded amazing. Playing completely solo, he did a ton of guitar gymnastics to flesh out the sound of the instrument and give us a show. But you could see him wince every time he hit what he thought was a sour note. Which, honestly, never sounded that way to us, but I imagine was amplified in his perfectionist brain. Not to put that on the dude, but you can tell he’s very serious about what he does. Which I totally appreciate as a person shelling out money to see him play. He did display a lot of earnestness with his rendition of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” which he had previously recorded on one of his EPs. He said several times that he had completely reworked his setlist the night before — which indicates that the passing of MacGowan did, in fact, weigh heavily on this set. There was a point where he sang an a cappella song called “Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto,” which I think he credited to Billy Bragg, though Bragg’s version is a cover of a gospel group called Sweet Honey in the Rock. I really started to lose the thread at this point, what with the white dude from Bloomfield singing this passionate — though incredibly repetitive — song about apartheid. I think. It was a little odd, these swerves into Irish working class folks songs (complete with the brogue) and African spirituals. But then he would course correct back into the “hits.” Which made my addled brain happy.
It only took me seventeen years or so to walk the two hundred yards to Outpost In the Burbs to see a show. And I’m very happy Ted Leo was my first foray. The dude is truly fascinating. And he sounds better than ever. Despite no longer having a record contract — his last label-supported album with Matador being 2010’s The Brutalist Bricks — I hope that he can prove that he still has a lot to say and a ton of talent to share with the world.