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Ted Leo rocks the ballroom

Joe Lattal | Monday, November 14, 2005

The last time Ted Leo played at the LaFortune Ballroom, he lived in Stanford Hall, he was with a band called Chisel and the calendar read 1990.

Saying that his return Saturday night as part of WVFI’s Quadrock show was historic is an understatement. The indie rock superhero and Notre Dame graduate (Class of 1994) entertained a sold-out crowd with a mix of original songs and covers in an electrifying 90-minute set.

Leo took the stage with bassist Dave Lerner and drummer Chris Wilson just before 10 p.m. in front of more than 200 students down the hall from WVFI, the student-run radio station that sponsored the show and where Leo was a program manager when he was a student in the early ’90s.

Leo opened the set with “My Vien Ilin” from his 2001 album, “Tyranny of Distance.” The song began with Leo’s smooth and accurate voice over rapidly changing power chords and finished with Wilson and Lerner joining in to repeat the main instrumental theme. Fans erupted in applause and cheers. Leo leapt towards the microphone and said a quick “thanks,” as he did after every single song he played.

He immediately went into the frantic guitar introduction of “Little Dawn” from his most recent album, 2004’s “Shake the Sheets.” The audience clapped along to the extended introduction that led to dramatic, ringing chords of the first verse. The song ended with a repetitive sequence in which he replayed the introduction and whispered “it’s all right” more than 100 times over the music while Lerner and Wilson jammed on bass and drums.

There was a scary moment when Leo turned away from the audience to cough twice before he started the next song. The crowd sighed collectively, possibly nervous about how much his voice could take before giving out.

Leo reported earlier in the day that he had been sick and actually cancelled a formal interview, but he was still well enough to play the show. He kept the crowd involved and comfortable by telling jokes about U2 frontman Bono and encouraging the audience to talk to him as he re-tuned.

Despite the coughing here and there between a few songs during the set, there was no noticeable damage or weakness in his voice as he continued singing for another hour.

He continued the set with a new song, “Sons of Cain,” and the recognizable “Me and Mia” before playing one of his biggest hits to date, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” from his 2003 album, “Hearts of Oak.” Leo swung his head side to side violently to the music, singing some of his most unforgettable lyrics:

“Gangsters and clown with a stereotyped sound / It’s coming like a ghost town … ooh it’s easy to see / we could dance to be free / to that two-tone beat / but it looks like it’s gone.”

Leo went into “The High Party,” one of his more unusual and popular songs. As he hit the high notes of the chorus, his eyebrows went up and his eyelids went down with his head swiveling back and forth on his neck. A bearded and khaki-clad Wilson whipped drumsticks through cymbals as though they weren’t even there. Lerner remained mostly still throughout the evening with the bass guitar around his neck, sometimes pedaling forward and backward to the beat in a sweater and a mop of curly hair.

Leo played nine more songs in the main set, a mix of material from all three of his most recent releases. He wrapped it up with the upbeat title track from “Shake the Sheets,” a political anthem with an elegant and dramatic deceleration at its finale.

The band left the stage to prolonged cheering, and Leo returned by himself about three minutes later to begin one of the most unordinary encores from a band of their level of prestige. The encore set was four covers by artists from New Zealand to Ireland. The first song was a solo electric rendition of “Dirty Old Town,” an Irish folk tune originally by legendary Irish songwriter Ewan MacColl that Leo also performed on his solo EP “Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead.”

Lerner and Wilson returned to the stage to assist in a cover of Split Enz’s “Six Months in a Leaky Boat,” another song featured on “Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead” and also included on another EP titled “Sharkbite Sessions.” The band raised the intensity with another cover, Stiff Little Fingers punk masterpiece “Suspect Device,” the highlight of “Sharkbite Sessions” and perhaps the most energetic song of the evening.

Leo concluded the show with a soft and dark cover of Richard Thompson’s “Beat the Retreat.” The melancholy guitar and vocals echoed in the LaFortune Ballroom as the audience stood in silence, realizing that this was the end of a milestone evening.