I always get a little nervous at the prospect of seeing a favorite artist play without the comfort of a backing band. On some level, I think, a solo performance is inherently a struggle, with one individual responsible for keeping the crowd entertained, or, at the least, preventing its attention from getting distracted elsewhere. I’ve seen more solo sets than I care to admit fade behind audience conversations and noise from the bar, or drag in uncomfortable between-song silences.
Given the king’s welcome Ted Leo received when he climbed on stage at Bottom of the Hill on Thursday night, it was clear that the audience was there to see him, and ready to hang onto his every note. In exchange, we were treated to an hour’s worth of Leo classics from the last decade, with the artist hammering away at an electric guitar and giving it all through a voice that was slightly strained but ultimately none the worse for wear.
The stripped-down setup may not have generated the sort of frenzied steam heat that Leo + Pharmacists shows typically do — aside from some bopping in place, the crowd remained mostly in place but attentive — but it brought extra focus onto the songwriter’s great political-meets-personal lyrics. I was reminded, for example, that “Me and Mia,” from 2004’s Shake the Sheets, isn’t just an incendiary piece of rock-pop — it’s also a comment on the devastating impact of eating disorders. Similarly, minus a rhythm section’s bop, the solo take underscored the isolation and introspection in “Bottled in Cork,” from last year’s excellent The Brutalist Bricks. It was a set full of intimate little moments like that, by one of the best songwriters out there today.
Ted Leo dedicated “The High Party” to his tourmate Kevin Seconds, who he said “taught
While car troubles and high expectations burdened the other performers, A B & The Sea confronted perhaps the night’s biggest challenge: being a pure pop band in between a couple of punk veterans. When I heard that they were playing, I felt a little nervous for the group, and their prep fashion choices didn’t help the knot in my stomach. Lead singer Koley O’Brien was dressed in a sport-coat-and-tie look that one might call the “Alex P. Keaton,” a far cry from Seconds’ hoodie or Leo’s Filth shirt. Things didn’t improve when O’Brien introduced the set by saying that he wanted to see everyone dancing to the first song.
That didn’t happen, but to the singer’s credit, he kept at it, imploring, “Aren’t we in San Francisco?” And, wouldn’t you know it, through strong musicianship and exuberance, A B & The Sea got a bunch of people moving around. By the end of the set, after a number of great songs, including “Baby You” with guest vocalists The She’s, and “Bone Dry,” the band was exiting to strong applause. If they could win that crowd over, who can’t this talented group get on their side? I predict it’s only a matter of time for this band to break big.