Saluting Ted Leo, undisputed MVP of Matador 21 in Las Vegas

Of all the unexpected places to creep into my list of musical adventure destinations, Las Vegas is probably the strangest, and likely will remain such for some time. It’s a place I would never go on its own terms, and almost everything about it struck me completely bewildering: The fusion of impressive architecture and shameless advertising (’architizing,’ as I dubbed it); the completely bizarre assortment of slot machine gimmicks; the fact that time seems an irrelevant, or at least ignored, concept in the Nevada desert.

But there I was, having a once-in-a-lifetime experience with 1,800 of the world’s most dedicated hipsters and music geeks (or at least, the ones good enough at Internet to successfully acquire tickets), celebrating Matador Records, one of the greatest independent music labels of all time turning 21 years young. Who was I to argue with the setting if it meant partying for three nights of music with the likes of Pavement, Belle and Sebastian, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and (eeeeee!) the reunited Guided by Voices?

I did a more traditional “weekend recap” blog post over at The Coast’s Scene and Heard blog—complete with a set of photos from the weekend—so I thought I’d use this space to pay due to the one person (my dear friends aside) who took this weekend from awesome to super-awesome.

Theodore Francis Leo. You probably know him better as Ted. And he kicked so much ass this weekend.

In a way, it’s both funny and fitting that Ted Leo was the weekend’s most heroic character. Funny, because even though he’s got a decade of super-respected indie punk under his belt with his band, The Pharmacists, Leo’s a relatively new addition to the Matador family; March’s The Brutalist Bricks is his first record for the label. But it’s also fitting because it meant that he was there in “fan” mode as much as he was “family.” Straddling the line between the weekend’s insiders and outsiders—already a thin one when everyone’s staying in the same casino—he did what any good man in his shoes would do.

He partied with everyone.

His Friday night “battle of the bands” with Fucked Up (Two bands! One stage! No mercy!) was the evening’s highlight for me, and probably for everyone who made their way up to the Palms Ballroom for the after-party. Sure, Leo, antagonistically wearing a Quebec t-shirt to bother his Canadian opponents, was gracious enough to concede defeat—which was probably the correct verdict, since it was hard to top Damien Abraham and company for crowd-pleasers—but he took some of the showdown’s biggest and most interesting risks.

Like when he brought Jon Wurster to totally set up the audience for a Springsteen cover before—bait and switch!—playing the Misfits’ “We Bite.” Or fielding a bizarre request from the crowd for Billy Bragg’s “Between the Wars” and managing to actually figure out how to play it from memory. Or my favourite moment, when he picked up his acoustic and laid down a great version of Liz Phair’s iconic “Fuck and Run.” (Check out my video of the song at the bottom of the post.) Going to a indie rock festival and getting a killer punk rock show right in the middle of it? Leo’s first huge contribution to the weekend’s festivities.

Then came Saturday’s after-party: Karaoke Underground. Only hours earlier, the Palms Louge was host to Playboy Comedy with Kevin Pollak (“From the Usual Suspects!” read the signs, which is obviously one of the funniest movies ever made). Now, an upstart karaoke couple from Austin, Texas had brought their homemade set of indie and punk rock tunes to the establishment for a gaggle of drunk flanneled kids to belt at the top of their lungs.

Well, drunk flanneled kids and Ted Leo.

Yep, there he was again, not only sitting politely as others valiantly attempted to sing his own songs (both “The Ballad of Sin Eater” and “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone” were performed) but getting up to take the mic himself, choosing to sing Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow.” And then when the night’s final song selection—Pavement’s “Summer Babe (Winter Version),” being led by Matador staffers—transformed into a massive stage-crashing, who was there again? Leo, not only taking the mic when offered but CROWD SURFING. Heroic once again.

By these standards, Sunday’s regularly-scheduled Ted Leo and the Pharmacists set almost seemed just predictable: all killer, no filler, from Rx standards like “Mia and Mia” and “Rude Boys” to great new material like the stuck-in-your-head-all-weekend “Bottled in Cork.” (I’ve still been humming “Tell the bartender / I think I’m falling in love” now that I’m back in the office.)

But then, after playing his usual set-closer, “Sin Eater,” along came yet another MVP moment. Carl Newman of the New Pornographers appeared on-stage and the duo launched into a completely-unironic cover of the mostly-ironic Nick Lowe song, “I Love My Label.” In his mid-song speech, Leo explained how he first fell in love with Matador—when fellow high-schooler (and future Chavez frontman) Matt Sweeney took him to see H.P. Zinker. It like like “Ted Leo Matador artist” disappeared completely for five minutes and “Ted Leo Matador Fan” was sharing his shameless affection with us.

And just when we thought that was the last we’d see of Leo, guess who ran out on-stage with Liz Phair to sing harmonies on “Fuck and Run?”

Obviously, there were a lot of people who put a lot of work into making this weekend possible, and to say that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience would be putting it lightly. Each night, after the shows were done, my partners in rock and I sat awake in our hotel room and gossiped about the day’s litany of highlights.

But time and time again, though the list was long, it invariably started and ended with Ted Leo and his self-deprecating, infectious enthusiasm. I half believe that the reason everything seemed more fun on Sunday than the other two days combined is by that point everyone had had at least one Ted Leo experience to talk about.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I have a huge heterosexual mancrush on Ted Leo right now for making Matador 21 even more awesome than its billing. But I think it’s a pretty safe bet that there are 1,800 other indie rock fans sharing in the swooning after this past weekend.

Watch: Ted Leo – “Fuck and Run” (Liz Phair cover, live at Matador 21)

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One response to “Saluting Ted Leo, undisputed MVP of Matador 21 in Las Vegas

  1. Pingback: Presence, absence and Merge Records’ 25th birthday celebration | McNutt Against the Music·

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