During the summer months of '02, I spent a lot of time planning an amazing trip... for myself. I was traveling to Washington, DC and staying there for a week, doing whatever I friggin' wanted to do. Lots of hours were logged in walking all over town, bouncing from museum to museum, trying awesome food, and doing stuff that really interested me. This included going to a Caps game (pre-Ovechkin era, mind you) and a couple of shows @ the Black Cat. I thought I never had a problem with going solo to shows or sporting events... and this trip would certainly test that. It turns out that the entire trip went swimmingly well and it really was one of my favorite trips ever. I partially owe that to Mr. Ted Leo and his band of Pharmacists.
I'm perpetually interested in the unknown when it comes to live music. There were times during college when my friends and I would pick out some random bands and just go to the show and see what happens. The same philosophy was applied when I traveled to DC. Knowing that I was going to attend some shows while I was in the District, I did some searching of local venues and see if any bands I knew of were available during the week of my stay. It turns out that I could've seen some great bands either the week before or after my vacation (seems like that always happens!), but I wasn't particularly aware of who was playing during my stay there. One band my college roommates joked about well before this trip was a band called Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Being a chemistry major and pharmacology student (the latter in high school), the name certainly piqued my interest, but we spent a little time poking fun @ that band because of the goofiness of the name... talking about how they were probably wearing lab coats during their set and such. Lame stuff.
When researching these venues, the only notable band that popped up was Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. I decided to take the gamble, not listen to any of the music beforehand, and get a ticket. My rationale behind this was also fueled by the fact that at the time Dave Grohl was a possible owner of the Black Cat and that added more curiosity. So I was sold on this show and it was one of the things I was immensely excited about before I went on the trip.
I didn't know any of the material, I didn't know anyone else @ the gig, and I had zero expectations. With all of that said, I couldn't believe how much the show paid off. It was probably one of my favorite concerts ever, from top to bottom.
The opening band was French Toast and blew my mind away right from the get-go. I had no idea that two people could generate so much cohesive noise and make it so strong. They played a short set that featured most (if not all) of their debut EP, Bugman, which I still proudly play from time to time.
Up next was the almighty Ted Leo and by the time he and his bandmates took to the stage, the Black Cat was packed. This was probably because he is somewhat of a local boy and really soaks up his time whenever @ the Black Cat, so there's always a vibrant energy when he's in town. He even went as far stating it in an interview with P*fork, as mentioned here (from '07):
I would probably have to say that the Black Cat in D.C. remains my favorite place, whether it's just because it's such a comfort zone for me, I'm not sure, but it really is just always a great stage to play on, and it's always a really welcoming place to play. And I also think it's a great place to see shows. To get specific, the sight lines around the room are amazing, and the sound system is good. (link)
I'm sure that some of the buzz factor was also related to the fact that this was a type of warm-up show for the band. A new record from the band was due in Feb '03 and this was a perfect showcase for most of that material. It's a shame that there aren't any setlists from either '02 or '03 floating around because I would love to have an idea of what I heard that nite, but I'm fairly certain that the set was heavy on tunes from the upcoming Hearts of Oak and a few faves from Tyranny of Distance.
What was clearly a memorable event during the show was during one of the new tracks. Apparently the band was used to being a four-piece (a evidenced on the cover of Hearts of Oak), but decided to beef up its sound a bit more by adding a second guitar player. With this new addition, it caused a few shake-ups during some songs, which added to the novelty factor of the show. However, during one new track, a string broke on one of the new guy's guitars. After a quick guitar change, it seemed as if all was back on track... then another string breaks on the new guitar. Lots of jokes were made and the crowd certainly didn't frown on the band because of the terrible mishaps. It was clear that the guitarist was fairly new to the band and to say that he was embarrassed would be an understatement. I'm not exactly sure what happened to that plan of sonic attack, but apparently the band wasn't feeling the five-piece setup and went back to a four-piece in '03 and is now currently a trio. I'd love to find it somewhere, but there's an interview that I think P*fork did around the time that Hearts of Oak (almost typed OKRA there instead... scary) was released and that gig was directly mentioned and Leo even acknowledged that the plans with the new guitar player didn't work out as well as he hoped and was rather humorous about it.
It just goes to show you that getting to shows early or taking a chance on something new and unfamiliar pays off in dividends. It's because of that show (and the killer tunes on it, as well) that Hearts of Oak is one of my favorite albums ever.