Indie-rock singer-songwriter Ted Leo has moved up from intimate gigs upstairs at the Middle East to larger venues like the Paradise, where he headlined before an enthusiastic crowd a week ago Wednesday. The stripped-down show didn’t merely mimic the quiet tones, wiry guitar melodies, and earnest crooning of his latest release, the Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead EP (Lookout) — he ripped through a rigorous set that spanned his solo career with a raw ferocity.
The evening was bookended with tunes from the EP, which takes its title from a track on Leo’s previous album, Hearts of Oak (Lookout), and includes that track along with three resolute yet delicate originals and cover treatments of the Jam’s “Ghosts” and Split Enz’ “Six Months in a Leaky Boat.” After opening with the muscular guitar scrawls and soaring vocals of “The Sword in the Stone,” he was joined by bassist David Lerner from his band the Pharmacists and drummer Gavin McCarthy of Boston’s post-rock outfit Karate. He shared anecdotes about his friends in the show’s opening bands, local indie-rockers Helms and Ian Svenonious’s punk-funk outfit Weird War. Then he threw himself into songs from Hearts of Oak and 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance (Lookout), doing quick dance steps and stretching onto his toes for the high notes as he unleashed long wailing guitar flare-ups over McCarthy’s rattling backbeats and Lerner’s intricate bass lines.
This was the first night of Leo’s current tour, and he seemed frustrated with his vocal delivery, but he channeled that frustration into his songs, pushing the intensity level into the red. At one point he handed out maracas and tambourines for an impromptu version of his anti-imperialist rap “The Ballad of the Sin Eater,” whose skeleton he fleshed out with big, tough guitar chords. After banging his guitar against the stage and breaking it, he finished up by playing the melody of “Bleeding Powers” on Lerner’s bass.