TED LEO/PHARMACISTS at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Wednesday (April 2). $10. 416-596-1908.
Jersey-bred post-punk poet ted Leo calls me from a pit stop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a week after playing successive daily showcases at South By Southwest.His blistering sets with his backing band, the Pharmacists, scored universal raves from the army of press folk, but the self-effacing Leo has got other stuff on his mind.
Like the war, for instance.
"I wish the climate at SXSW had been different, to tell you the truth," he sighs, pondering the effect of wartime tensions.
"A lot of the places we've been have been somewhat depressingly oblivious to what's going on."
It's no surprise that Leo's hyper-aware of the current cultural climate. Since his days in the NYC hardcore scene, and more recently as a member of short-lived agit-punk outfit the Sin Eaters (which he founded with his brother Danny), the genre-hopping songwriter's infused his tunes with pointedly political critiques.
His latest disc, the stellar Hearts Of Oak (Lookout!), treads similar political turf while combining Clash-style punk rock and sassy mod swagger with hits of ska and folk. Sonically, it kinda blows your mind -- Leo's a wicked guitarist with an elastic voice -- but even more impressive are his skills as a lyricist and storyteller. His songs are political without being didactic, gorgeously layered fables with clear messages embedded in the poetry.
Leo claims his often oblique lyrics are an attempt to draw out more universal themes. Take his reference to the French flaneur in Hearts Of Oak's 2nd Ave, 11 AM, for example.
"That's the old literary romantic in me, idealizing the ingenue from all the old Balzac novels or Byron poems. The times when I've been at my most destitute, with the most leisure time to just walk around streets and play at being the flaneur, have really been my most artistically productive.
"There's an element of that cyclical nature of the counterculture. You find the analogues of all those angry young men from 19th-century French novels in youth culture today. The cycle repeats itself -- not in a defeatist way; in an encouraging way.
"I'm absolutely not interested in revivalism or living in the past, but I think that along the way, elements that could really better inform us how to approach the future have been lost."
What's important to Leo is paying tribute to fallen heroes, whether specifically, as in the nods to the 2-Tone ska scene, chiefly the Specials, on Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?, or abstractly, through his ongoing obsession with death and dying.
Considering Leo's clear debt to the Clash, you'd better believe he was hit particularly hard this year by the passing of one of his idols.
"I was lucky enough to see Joe Strummer last summer, on his last American tour, and it was amazing. It's inspiring for me, as someone who is getting older and still trying to do this thing, to see someone who was that much older than me go for it, obviously loving what he was doing.
"I used to think, "Someday soon this guy and I are gonna rub shoulders and be pals,' but that's obviously not gonna happen -- or, hopefully, won't happen any day soon."email@example.com