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Leo, Pharmacists shake things up at the Paradise

Ted Leo spent the entirety of a 90-minute set at the Paradise chained -- guitar to stack -- by a short, red, spiraled cord. He moved like Angus Young on a leash, kicking his left leg forward in lock-step, slamming his hand down on the strings, and frothing and spitting in an earnest snarl.

No one has ever accused Leo of being insincere. His biggest fans take his brand of intellectualized rebellion to heart, and on Saturday night they formed a small pocket around the front of the stage, mouthing the lyrics to each song, nodding heads in agreement. Leo is pop-punk's junior statesman: His message is that nothing, not even pop-punk music, should be without meaning.

On stage, Leo and his backing band, the Pharmacists, have a bracing, mildly antagonistic presence. Bassist Dave Lerner plays the straight man to drummer Chris Wilson's crashing, stuttered rhythm, and to Leo himself, who fights and shouts his way through a song, letting each chorus dissolve into a wall of distortion.

Saturday's set list relied heavily on material from 2004's ''Shake the Sheets," a neatly packaged conflation of jagged punk hooks and soaring, melodic vocals. The band played ''Me and Mia" as pure thrill, all jangle and persistence, and brought ''Little Dawn" to a hushed halt, while the audience overpowered Leo's stage whisper.

''It's all right, it's all right," he chanted into the mike, and the stage lights faded to blue.

As a lyricist, Leo's greatest asset is his ability to balance the big ideas with the small; to juxtapose politics and societal critique with the mundane details of American life. ''Counting Down the Hours," a ''Shake the Sheets" standout, follows that trajectory: a reference to ''detainees barely kept alive" has Leo asking, seconds later, ''if I told you I felt ageless, would you tell me I'm not old?"

After Leo finished ''Hours" on Saturday, an audience member began complaining that the band had become too highbrow for its own good. ''You played at Princeton," he shouted.

''Hey, maybe you'll like this next song," Leo smiled. ''It's street punk. And it has very little to do with the Ivy League." He paused. ''Well, except that it employs some French."

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