The Sea Navy is a guy with an electric guitar, a drum machine, lyrics like, “I’m never gonna be a motivation” (rhymes with “inspiration”), and more nerve than ability. He was halfway through his set when I walked into Neumo’s on a freezing Valentine’s eve. During my line time, I was struck anew at the steadfastness of under-21 concertgoers—kids waiting for something to happen, sharing the faith that it will.
Pretty soon it did. U.S.E. kicked off with “Open Your Eyes” a good 10 minutes before anyone in the crowd was expecting it—including the sound guy, apparently, who set the volume about one-third louder than it needed to be. Still, you know a band is on a roll when the new songs highlight a set—in this case, the ’70s-R&B-inflected midtempo “Dance With Me” and the sunny, limber “K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” They also debuted a new bridge on the as-yet-unrecorded live fave “Party People”; this is not a song that needed improving, but they went and did it anyway.
Portland’s the Joggers were a rather odd follow-up. I heard arty-punky indie with an appealing approachability (they’re good harmony singers, for one thing); the lead singer fret-tapped a guitar lead instead of strumming or picking it regularly, and they used spindly prerecorded loops to lead them into a couple of songs. Pretty interesting as a breather between the supercharged U.S.E. and headliner Ted Leo + the Pharmacists, though they would have been better placed earlier in the bill.
Leo was plenty energetic himself, though the Pharmacists’ revved tempos made them stumble a few times—Leo was right to make a “so-so” sign with his hand as he said thanks after opener “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” Still, Leo’s everyguy charisma and feverish guitar (his playing is easy to overlook through his word-tumult lyrics) drove past it. The best-sounding material mostly came from last fall’s Shake the Sheets, whose easier tunes and cleaner melody lines and lyrical constructions (he crams fewer words into each line) are every bit as urgent as his earlier work. Near the end, a fan handed him a large . . . well, the guy called it a big acorn when Leo asked him onstage to explain it. Just before the finale—”The Ballad of the Sin Eater,” during which Leo put his guitar down and testified with the mike stand like a ’60s soul singer—he regarded the object. “I’m still not sure what that is,” he said. “We’ll have to discuss it later on the Internet.”