One of the great things about the Triangle is the number of venues -- venues that bring in quality local and national acts, not just a handful of the same mediocre locals and open mic nights. There's always somewhere new to go to see good live music.
So I'm looking for something low profile to do on a recent Saturday night, and I thought: "I'll check out that little campus coffee house up in Durham that I've never been to yet. See what Duke tuition gets for the kids." Well, this coffee house "open mic night" featured solo sets by a couple of young upstarts, Mac McCaughan and Ted Leo. I've heard these guys have played around some...
For my part, I was there to see Mac, he of Superchunk, Portastatic, & Merge Records. Most of the rather intimate group of a hundred or so, however, were there to see Mr. Ted Leo. Dave and his friend, avowed Tedheads (is there such a thing?) drove from southern Virginia. Katie and Shane, from Nebraska, happened to be in town for one more night and looking for something to do, and being the big Ted Leo fans they are, well, it just kinda worked out.
Another great thing about the Triangle... you can just happen to be here for one night and, by dumb luck, catch your favorite band.
So Mac saunters out and welcomes the little crowd -- just he and his guitar, plugged in -- and breaks into Trash Heap, from the indie rock classic On the Mouth. I loved it. But I was looking to Portastatic, having seen the 'Chunk numerous times, but never the 'Static. He had recently played a set which ended with members of Portastatic coming up to play a few songs as a band, but that was not to be this night. Nevertheless, Mac played a set with as much Portastatic as anything: White Wave and the charming I Wanna Know Girls from Bright Ideas, the very sweet-sounding Paratrooper from Summer of the Shark, and Be Still Please from the album of the same name. A couple from Superchunk's latest, Majesty Shredding, were played (Learned to Surf , Crossed Wires...), and even though they're pretty upbeat rockers, they worked well with just Mac and his guitar.
Highlights were when he trotted out Leo to play melodica on a cover of Prefab Sprout's When Love Breaks Down, and another cover, Can't Fool Me (from hardcore band A Number of Things). Mac said the latter was a band he saw at one of the first shows he had seen at Duke Coffeehouse, back in the heyday of hardcore. He joked that we should start a pit. I'm sure this was a little different from his original experience with that song at the coffeehouse. But thankfully, Mac, and Merge et al, have always taken us to unexpected places musically.
Mac, with Ted Leo backing him up on melodica...
After a brief intermission, Ted Leo came onstage. Again, just he and an electric guitar. And again, the rocking out was more than sufficient despite the minimal instrumentation. Now, I myself am not a "Tedhead", so I didn't know all the songs played. There was Me and Mia and Bleeding Powers from Shake the Sheets (the lone Leo CD in my collection), Sword in the Stone, The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree, The High Party, and the crowd favorite One Polaroid a Day. After trying some whistling on A Bottle of Buckie ("made by monks, drunk by punks"), he joked that he shoulda gotten Mac to play melodica. He asked the crowd to sing along with Bottled In Cork ("Tell the bartender I think I'm falling in love!"), and they obliged.
There were a couple of new songs, and covers of Hazel Dickens' Aragon Mill and the classic Witchita Lineman, the latter of which really suited him vocally, and the former of which showed off his ample guitar chops. This surprised me most seeing Leo live... just how GOOD of a guitar player he is. His CD's, being more energetic, full band affairs, don't make that as obvious. But hearing him alone, in such an intimate setting, really makes that clear.
Then vocally... I never really figured out what was distinct about Ted Leo's vocals, but I knew there was something different there. Not just a maturing punker adding melodic coals to the political fire. Then when he covered, as an encore, the 1970's classic Gimme a Little Sign (by Brenton Wood), I got it. Especially after doing his Glen Campbell. THAT'S what I'm hearing vocally mixed w/ the post-punk edge. A little '70s, pop/R&B melody. This guy probably listened to a lot of Motown and AM Gold growing up. But then, also Television and NY Dolls, as made clear when he broke into another encore, his own Ballad of the Sin Eater ("you didn't think they could HATE ya now, didja?!"). Shades of Jim Carroll. The political edge was there all night, no doubt, with plenty of the anti-war lyrics Leo's known for ("people waiting for an excuse for war", "looking for another shitty war..."). But amidst the fire is the melody, a contrast which makes Leo's music so engaging.
So for Duke students and their little coffee house, I'd say tuition is well worth it. I'll have to check out this little venue again.
But the next little hole-in-the-wall club I'm gonna have to visit is the Haw River Ballroom. I think, though, that I've been beaten to the punch.
Oh, and thanks to the above mentioned Shane (Shane Hill) for the photos! I left my camera in the car for this one, bue he was kind enough to oblige, and got some great shots of Mac and Ted.