Last night I saw Ted Leo for the 10th time at the Crystal Ballroom as part of Portland’s seminal Musicfest NW. As always with Ted, it was a great show. I also had the opportunity to see Ted play a radio session for KEXP and it was during that afternoon set at the Doug Fir Lounge with a vodka in my hand that I felt nostalgia creeping in. Those feelings returned later that night at the Crystal so I’d like to take the opportunity here to reflect on them.
I did a little research this morning and realized that the first time I heard Ted Leo was in early 2003, over 7 years ago. It wasn’t a particularly great time in my life. I didn’t graduate high school the previous Spring (but damn did I do well on that GED test) and was living with my Mom at the time while working 5 days a week at an Ace Hardware - a job that I still have nightmares about to this day. Most of my friends were either still in high school and busy, or in college and gone. Several nights a week I would end up going on long drives with my friend Micah and think about how there wasn’t a single thing I really wanted to do with my life. I would typically stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning regardless of when I had to wake up the next day.
Some weekday night during this time frame I was watching the Conan O’Brien show and saw Ted Leo for the first time performing “Where have all the Rude Boys gone?”
It certainly wasn’t a life changing experience in and of itself, but listening to the two albums Ted had released at that point: Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak – made me feel better about my life. Shortly after discovering his music I had the opportunity to see Ted play for the first time in the student union of Linfield College (I think…it might have been George Fox). I made the mistake of taking one of my friends that was still in high school and we ended up leaving before Ted even took the stage (although I did see him string up his guitar). Luckily for me it was only a few months later that Ted would return to Portland, this time on a solo tour that brought him to the now defunct Meow Meow club. The highlights I remember from this first show include a killer version of “The Sword in the Stone” – one of his most underrated songs in my opinion and a great cover of of the Split Enz classic “Six Months in a Leaky Boat”.
It should be noted that Ted Leo was the first real “indie” music I listened to regularly. More than that Ted was a gateway to another favorite artist of mine as his cover of “Keep on Pushing” inspired me to download a Curtis Mayfield compilation. At some point I realized that my three favorite musicians at that time: Eddie Vedder, Steve Earle and now Ted Leo all cited Bruce Springsteen as an influence. Around this same time I was seeing a girl who lived in Canada and we effectively broke up during a trip she took out here in August of 2003. After I dropped her off at the airport I was devastated and went to Best Buy to pick up a few CD’s to try to cheer myself up. The two albums I bought that evening were Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits and Tunnel of Love. I didn’t take to them immediately - but before I knew it The Boss became a big part of my life and has been a constant ever since.
Later in 2003 I saw Ted Leo play with the Pharmacists at the (also now defunct) Nocturnal club. I saw him play there twice in a six month period so its hard for me to pick out highlights other than a killer cover of the Stiff Little Fingers “Suspect Device” and a show stopping “Ballad of a Sin Eater”. Its interesting to look back on these shows as I have no idea where these clubs were as I lived in the suburbs at the time and only went to Portland about once every few months and it always scared the crap out of me. It would have been hard for me to imagine then that only three years later I would be living in downtown Portland, hanging out all over the city and loving every minute of it.
I saw a lot of great live music in 2004 including Neil Young, Damien Rice w/ The Frames and another Ted Leo show at the Nocturnal. I met my wife online that summer before she moved here from California. I thought I’d send her some CD’s for her drive up and made sure to include a copy of Hearts of Oak. She would later tell me that she listened to it several times on that long drive up from California and loved it. Soon after she moved here we saw Ted play the Bossanova Ballroom (which isn’t closed, but no longer hosts rock shows) in what I’m pretty sure was her 2nd rock show while living in Portland (the first was Pearl Jam at the Showbox, fittingly enough). We saw him play the Bossanova again in February of 2005 drawing heavily on Shake the Sheets material, I vividly remember an awesome version of “Little Dawn” that had an extended bass solo because Ted broke a string – it ended up becoming one of those magical moments that have made live music such an addiction of mine.
We missed Ted when he played the Aladdin Theater that year because we were up in Vancouver to see Pearl Jam. Before the show that evening at GM Place we turned on the news and saw what hurricane Katrina had done to the city of New Orleans and that remains my most vivid memory from that trip although the Pearl Jam show was spectacular as always. I’ll always regret not seeing Ted Leo play Victoria BC the next night since I didn’t have the opportunity to see him at all in 2006.
Ted played a blistering set at the Hawthorne Theater shortly after the release of Living with the Living in 2007 in what remains my favorite Ted Leo show to this day. We were about 3 rows back with our friends Curtis and Maureen and I think we all had some serious hearing damage by the end of the evening. He added a second guitarist in the return of James Canty which gave his songs some added texture and an epic quality. Ted played a long set that included a set closing “Biomusicology” (my favorite song of his by that point), an encore opening “Timorous Me” and a cover of “Rappaport’s Testament (I never gave up)” that was especially moving.
<iframe src="http://player.vimeo.com/video/13029146" width="400" height="273" frameborder="0"></iframe><p><a href="http://vimeo.com/groups/330/videos/13029146">Ted Leo- Rappaport's Testament (I Never Gave Up) live</a> from <a href="http://vimeo.com/user1814346">Andrew Pellegrino</a> on <a href="http://vimeo.com">Vimeo</a>.</p>
In 2008 we saw Ted Leo play twice on our honeymoon opening for Pearl Jam at Madison Square Garden. Both times the crowd was fairly apathetic. I recall overhearing a ten club member wondering out loud why Pearl Jam could never get a band like Silverchair or Bush to open for them. I shit you not. Ted Leo did play a great set that included some new material that would end up on The Brutalist Bricks and a great version of “Stove By a Whale”. The next time I saw Ted was another opening set, this time for Against Me at the Roseland Theater. I was by myself and left right after he finished because my wife was at home with a mean case of pink eye. He opened with a great version of “2nd Ave, 11 AM”.
I wouldn’t see Ted again until 2010 when he played two shows at the Doug Fir Lounge, one on a Saturday night followed all ages show on Sunday afternoon. The Saturday show was probably the better experience (aside from my good friend having to leave when his girlfriend at that time passed out) but the Sunday show had the better set list featuring some of my favorite songs from Tyranny of Distance. I finally got to see “Parallel or Together” – a Leo classic if there ever was one.
So I guess I’ve actually seen him 11 times, 12 if you count that radio session yesterday afternoon. There have been some rumors lately of Ted possibly hanging it up or going into semi-retirement and the thought of that really bums me out. By all accounts Ted is a great guy and should obviously make whatever decision is best for him and his family. Having said that though, Ted and his music have been an integral part of my adult life and not having a constant stream of Ted Leo shows and records would be quite an adjustment for me. Theres something about Ted Leo’s music in general, but especially his live sets, that really inspires me and makes me feel like regardless of all the injustice and tragedy that has beset our country in the past decade that everything will be okay. Or as ted sings at the end of “Little Dawn” - “Its alright”
So thanks Ted. I hope I get to see you play this song again someday.