John Kerry and Ted Kennedy may have captured the DNC spotlight last week, but it was former Bostonian Ted Leo who made politics fun. His cheerful, impassioned set added overt political content to the show staged by youth activism organization Music for America downstairs at the Middle East a week ago Tuesday, on the second night of the convention. Evincing the political zeal and the boyish charm he’s mixed since he first fronted NYC-based hardcore band Citizen’s Arrest and DC-based political punks Chisel, Leo was as vocal as ever, bantering with fans and calling for ongoing activism and gender equality in music.
But he rocked even harder than usual, seemingly free of the vocal strain and the health problems that have plagued him on recent tours. His stripped-down backing band, Pharmacists, featuring drummer Chris Wilson and bassist Dave Lerner, delivered songs from throughout the band’s career as tough punk anthems, and they made everything sound fresh, a feat when you consider how often Leo plays Boston. “I’m a Ghost,” from 2003’s Hearts of Oak (Lookout!), was all rolling drums and fiery vocals; “The High Party” found Leo spitting out anti-war lines with venom.
The crowd gave as good as they got, even spontaneously clapping along — above their heads, no less — during the riff-buoyed “Timorous Me” from 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance (Lookout!). Leo reached his peak on several songs from the band’s new album, which was recorded earlier this summer and is due for release this fall. His sinuous falsetto soared over tightly strummed guitar on “Me and Mia”; “Counting Down the Hours” burst with Celtic-flavored classic-rock exuberance. The closing cover of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device” infused their anti-authority message with renewed passion.
The NYC-based disco-punk quintet Radio 4 briefly commented on the night’s political importance during their opening set. But otherwise they incited their revolution on the dance floor, shaking hips and consciousnesses with songs like the reggae-flavored, bongo-layered “Struggle” from 2002’s Gotham!