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Concert Review: An Odd Couple at the Opera House

Ted Leo Brings Energy, Death Cab Induces Sleep

By Tyson McNulty

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

and Death Cab For Cutie

Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006

Boston Opera House

Back in October, a friend of mine told me that Ted Leo and the Pharmacists were going to be playing at the Opera House in November. When the day finally came, I was psyched. I had seen Ted once before at Somerville Theater and knew I could expect some serious, non-stop hits. The rest of the world seemed to have heard about a Death Cab for Cutie concert that was also happening at the Opera House at the same time. That night, we converged, bewildered, watched our concerts, watched each other’s concerts, exchanged nothing, and departed.

The house was barely half full when Ted opened the show. I was surprised to find that even though I was second-row-center, there were no other avid Ted Leo fans in sight. After he got into the middle of his set, I hardly noticed any more because I was too busy singing along to every word. He played eight songs in all. Four of them were from “Shake the Sheets” (his most recent album), three were from earlier releases, and one was brand new. It’s hard to choose a favorite out of “Me and Mia,” “Timorous Me,” “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?,” and “Counting Down the Hours;” in fact, I submit that it can’t be done. Ted rocked the house, but the house barely knew it. For those of you out there who haven’t seen or heard of Ted Leo before, they’re a power trio with an uncanny sense of rock aesthetics and lyrics with a stirring, often politically charged subtext. The members’ musicianship make Ted Leo albums true to the live sound, and Ted’s songwriting is unparalleled. He reminds us that intellectually elevated music doesn’t have to be moody and timid.

The intermission lasted about 20 minutes, but it still wasn’t enough to prepare me for the contrast between the end of Ted’s set and the beginning of Death Cab for Cutie’s. Death Cab played 19 songs total, three of which were encores. Barring some electronic feedback issues during “Lightness” and some pitch problems in “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” I offer no real complaints about the quality of their performance. Ben Gibbard has a knack for writing lyrics in paragraph form, putting them over four repeated chords that somehow make you forget they rarely even rhyme at all, and writing choruses that are at times brilliant and at times just plain annoying, but invariably catchy. In the end, I think they managed to reach my expectations but not to exceed them.

For me, the highlights were mainly the 30 percent of the songs they played that weren’t from “Transatlanticism” or “Plans” — namely “405,” “We Laugh Indoors,” “President of What,” and “Photobooth.” Interestingly, these lesser known songs were evenly spaced throughout the set, and they seemed to be the songs the band enjoyed playing the most. It was almost as if the band was trying to turn their fans on to some of their albums that hadn’t received obscene amounts of media hype. Also impressive was “We Looked Like Giants,” which turned into a 10-minute extended jam during which Ben played on a miniature drum set which was assembled and disassembled during the song. It was one of those “OK, I admit it, that was pretty cool” things that would have made even the most scrupulous music critics consider Death Cab for re-entry into the canon of enduring musical significance. For the rest of the set, I found myself more entertained by the crowd itself. Picture an opera house packed with comatose fans swaying under the influence of any given Death Cab lullaby. The audience would come to life for five seconds every minute or so only to murmur a few choruses. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” was particularly surreal. A friend of mine who came with me said it best when, as Ben began the song, she muttered, “Oh, God, I feel like I just clicked on their MySpace page.” Everyone would stare at the stage as if they were watching “Plans” cycle through on a CD player. Creepy.

Shows like this are rare. Not often does one get the chance to see two bands with such disparate appeal appear back-to-back. I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that Ted Leo opened for Death Cab and not the other way around, but I can’t say the experience was a disappointment.