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Leo, Pharmacists have a prescription for truth

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists took the stage ready to play a rock show, but there were issues to resolve before a note was played. The kick drum was unstable and needed to be secured. Leo felt compelled to instruct an audience member about the impossibility of loving him considering how little she knew him. Since the momentum was blown, why not retune?

It was an earnest false start befitting indie-rock's tireless truth-teller -- no pretense, no apologies, no filler -- and Leo's 75-minute set, when it eventually began, was likewise lean and unadorned.

At 34, far past the usual age of ascent in this business, Leo has become the punk-pop poet for the liberal left, a sort of Billy Bragg for the post-9/11 college kids. ''I want to take it to the president/ him and all the cabinet, with a broom/ I want to sweep the Halls of Arrogance/ sweep the walls of the excrement of these baboons," he sang in ''Shake the Sheets," a masterful mélange of moral outrage and infectious melody. Unfortunately, if you hadn't already memorized the words to the title song from Leo's most recent album, his politically charged wordplay was lost to indie rock's reverence for junky vocal sounds.

Leo and his Pharmacists -- bassist Dave Lerner and drummer Chris Wilson -- are a formidable power trio, all hard-charging guitar, crafty bashing, and a wired-and-woolly bottom end. Signature sugar-coated speedballs dominated Leo's set on Saturday: the fierce, bouncy diatribe ''Me and Mia"; sweet, combustible ''2nd Ave, 11AM"; contemplative ''Counting Down the Hours"; and ''Little Dawn," on which Leo left his itchy tune behind for a mesmerizing comfort coda. That's when it became clear that for all his vast influences, from Irish folk and British pop to hard-core punk and anthemic rock, Leo has willfully narrowed his scope.

''Timorous Me," a soulful blues-rock behemoth that owes a giant debt to Thin Lizzy, was one of the last songs of the night, but the first that rallied the otherwise lackluster crowd to fits of fist-pumping life. Granted, it was the cheesiest tune of them all, followed closely by a cover of fellow-Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen's ''Dancing in the Dark." But it neatly demonstrated the obvious: There's more to Leo, and life, than angry nuggets, and one had to wonder how many more people might answer the call if he loosened the reins of his bountiful talents.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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