Saturday, October 11, 2008

Concert Review: Against Me! (with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists; the Future of the Left), the Electric Factory, Philadelphia, Oct. 9

It's disheartening how single-minded crowd can sap a show of its excitement. The Oct. 9 triple bill of the Future of the Left, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Against Me! promised--and delivered--three high-energy sets, but the sea of Against Me! fanboys and fangirls was totally apathetic to the warm-up acts.

The show's highlight might have been the Future of the Left, a trio which sports two former McLusky members in drummer Jack Egglestone and singer/guitarist Andy "Falco" Falkous (who has lost so much weight that I didn't recognize him at first.) They've got all the bite and sneer McLusky had, though Falco uses a keyboard just as often as he does a guitar these days. He even uses a loop pedal to stack vocals, building up a kaleidoscope of screams to pummel the audience. The band adds electronics in without feeling any less like a rock band, but the crowd was lost the second they ventured to step past power chords. At one point, Falco was working up a surge of feedback by running a drumstick over his guitar strings. Some manatee in the crowd was looking down, idly playing with the tip of her stretched-out blouse. She looked up to the chaos on stage for maybe half a second, then looked back down to over-extended garment as though there wasn't even a band present. What can you do with an audience like that?

Ted Leo, who I assumed would headline when I bought my ticket, was also similarly disrespected. I spent a few songs in the second row behind a bunch of teens hugging the rail for that coveted up-front spot, too busy dreaming about Against Me! to remember to dance, clap or otherwise acknowledge the Pharmacists. I told a girl in front of me I was there for Ted, and asked if we could swap spots until Against Me! "I won't be able to see," she protested. "...see what?" I countered. "You're not even paying attention." "But I won't be able to see." I even offered $20 for collateral, but she refused. The next guy I asked was more reasonable. (You're a generous dude, Steve!)

Granted, Ted didn't do himself any favors with a questionable setlist. Only one track each for The Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak. Five Shake the Sheets tunes, but no "Me and Mia." He omitted "The Ballad of the Sin Eater," his trademark live song and a tremendous closer. Live, Ted's spastic vocals get room to stretch out live, and he gets to show off his guitar chops and add a little noise. It elevates even the so-so material, and the band still sounds tight, but devoting over half your set to your newest, weakest album and new material isn't accommodating to the disinterested crowd, nor is it throwing any bones to the few fans scattered amongst it. But, again, what can you do to kids that are there just to see one band and songs they already know, not expressing actual interest in hearing new music?

Consider me pretty soured by the time Against Me! came out to do their thing to rapturous applause. They play well, but it seems too basic and too traditional to stir up that much excitement. It comes down to some guys in black shirts and jeans playing vaguely folksy punk, with just enough Joe Strummer/Billy Bragg twang and grit on the vocals to set it apart. But once you're past the signature hits, it just starts to feel like watching any number of adequate punk bands. (I also have to say that punk fans aren't as tough as they used to be; I was able to muscle my way all the way to the front row AND get a spot on the railing, front row center!) But I guess neither a seeming lack of interest in music nor a wimpy crowd are surprising for a band that's only half-filling the venue on the strength of a Spin album of the year. I caught their encore from the back of the hall, and kids were steadily filing out instead of sticking around for more, so I guess the crowd's interest wasn't even held by what they came for.

This all makes the show sound like a real downer, which it wasn't. All three bands played well and were raucous enough to enjoy. It's just that anyone who was ready to do so had to fight against the will of the crowd to do so. One can only imagine how much better the show would have played in a smaller venue, with a few hundred excited fans packed together. Maybe they can try this again once the residual Spin hype dies out.

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