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Buy one of the following Ted Leo and the Pharmacists CDs from amazon.com:

'Treble in Trouble' (2000 EP)

'The Tyranny of Distance' (2001)

'Hearts of Oak' (2003)

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Photograph by Cathy Bauer

No Stroke: Comparisons to Paul Weller and Billy Bragg are warranted for 'punk poster boy' Ted Leo.

Leo the Lion

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists prescribe punk rock via '60s R&B

By Traci Vogel

TED LEO will not be dating Drew Barrymore anytime soon. "I mean, I would," the singer/guitarist says from his home in New Jersey. "If we met, and she was a nice person, and we got along well. But it's not on my agenda, no."

Which is one way of saying that Leo, despite having been dubbed indie music's "punk poster boy" and "legendary" by Rolling Stone and "one of the decade's most impressive songwriters" by Alternative Press--and despite being from the New York area--is a hype universe away from bands like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Maybe Leo's persistent obscurity proves the cliché about the mainstream music industry's lack of good taste, but this time we can be thankful--it means that the incredibly talented Leo and his equally talented backup band, the Pharmacists, continue to tour places like the Los Gatos Outhouse.

The Outhouse promises to be an especially sympathetic venue for Leo's totally unaffected intimate punky rock songs. Often compared to charismatic singer/guitarists like Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, Leo shares a penchant for heartfelt lyrics about nights of drinking, politics and romance. He also hopes, he says, that the comparison with Weller and the Jam derives from shared musical inspirations--'60s R&B and rock-steady reggae--filtered through his own love of punk.

"A lot of the reasons I love the Jam is that they seamlessly do the same kinds of things I'm trying to do," Leo says. "Billy Bragg--he also draws from a lot of the same wells. And he adds the straight-up folk element, which is a well that I draw from, especially like a Celtic/ folky bent."

The influence is obvious on his most recent release, Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead, which is a collection of mostly solo recordings--just Leo and his electric guitar--and includes covers of the Jam's "Ghosts," the Pogues' "Dirty Old Town," and "Six Months in a Leaky Boat" by Split Enz. Here, Leo's voice gets the small venue, onstage treatment. He's energetic, almost to the point of hoarseness. He sings like a man who meets his audience's eyes, as they mouth the words along with him.

Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead came out in October of 2003--just seven months after the band's critically acclaimed February release, Hearts of Oak, which followed two straight years of touring with bands like Quasi, Juno, Q & Not U and Radio 4.

The intense touring schedule, Leo says, has not always been kind. "Last year I think I played something like 280 shows, and it gets to the point where I'm driving all day, I get to the club, and the only way I can make it through the show is to sequester myself in the dressing room and stretch and just not talk to anybody for a little bit. So I don't have many good tour stories because the more I tour, the less I actually get to interact with anybody."

Leo does love playing at all-ages venues like the Los Gatos Outhouse. "Having grown up going to punk-rock shows long before I was 21," he says. "I know there are tons of kids out there that want to go to shows, and it's not that easy." Moreover, he has little patience for people who criticize all-ages venues as dens of youthful iniquity.

"Music is not a soundtrack to drink beer by," he maintains. "The main purpose of touring is to be able to play your music for people to listen to. ... I appreciate the fact that there are young kids who want to listen to music that isn't the public face of the punk-rock 'scene' in America. And it's funny that there are people who think, 'Whoa, there's kids hanging out on the street; we gotta get rid of that,' whereas there might be frat guys beating up on other kids at a sanctioned venue and it's tolerated. It's just ridiculous."

Don't get him wrong: when there's occasion, he does "drink like a fish." But more than that, he sings like a sailor.


Ted Leo and the Pharmacists perform on Jan. 31 at the Outhouse, 4 New York Ave., Los Gatos. Tickets are $6. (408.395.5553)


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From the January 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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