Was doing some New Year’s sorting and came across some notes scrawled on the inside cover of an Archie comic book. It’s a set list from one of the most memorable events I ever witnessed at Rudy’s Bar & Grill—the old one (now Elm Bar) at the corner of Elm and Howe streets in downtown New Haven. I was the bar’s next door neighbor for 12 years, and saw endless comings and goings (and pissings and vomitings). Also saw some musical history made.
On this particular night, which had to have been sometime in 2001 or 2002, the headliner was Ted Leo and Pharmacists. Leo had been visiting New Haven for years (mostly at the Tune Inn) in various bands and formats, but his first Pharmacists album on Lookout! Records had been getting some big national attention.
At the time, Rudy’s had about as good a town/gown mix as had ever been found in the place, and Ted Leo fans from both sides of the ivy walls had clustered into the bar’s side room and its small platform stage. (The corner stage we know how hadn’t been built yet.)
Unfortunately, two New York bands were on the bill before Ted Leo. The second one, whose frontman betrayed some serious U2 idolatry in his garish stage movements, played for way too long. By the time Leo + Pharmacists set up, it was just about five minutes until closing time.
…which Ted Leo didn’t realize until he was one song into what he’d clearly planned to be a long and diverse set for his special friends in Connecticut. He began with a cover of “Dirty Old Town,” only to be greeted with a dirty look from legendary local bartender Leo Vigue, who’d been a fixture at Rudy’s for several decades. Leo observed the state-mandated bar closing times to the minute, and he was here to tell Ted Leo that his time was up before it had barely started.
How did Ted Leo react? Consider the situation, and the energy that had been pent-up, and was not allowed to fully unleash due to the glare of an unimpressed bartender. I’ve seen windows and doors in bars broken down at far less fraught moments.
What Ted Leo did is… he played faster. And faster. The band did too. They raced through half a dozen already-speedy songs in the time it would ordinarily take to play three. It was like hearing a record on the wrong speed, except the vocals weren’t chipmunky.
Fearing not to pause lest Leo Vigue pull the plug (the only patter came early in the set: “Aren’t you guys not supposed to cheer for Boston? Isn’t it a Harvard/Yale thihng?”), Ted Leo + Pharmacists segued directly from “Dirty Old Town” into their own tunes “The King of Time,” “Parallel or Together?.” “Biomusicology” and “Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead.”
It wasn’t the Ted Leo show we’d come to see, but for those of us who were confident we’d be seeing him soon in New Haven again (and we would, a few months later, opening for Iggy Pop at Toad’s Place), it was a unique and wondrous spectacle. How tight can punk bands be? This tight—doing a set doubletime with a Ramones-esque lack of pause, on a moment’s notice without any planning, as a gift to fans and a bit of mischief in response to a foreboding bartender.
The plug did get pulled. The singer for the overlong middle band couldn’t stop apologizing to Ted Leo. I think Ted Leo and Leo Vigue even parted that evening on good terms.
Leo Vigue died in November 2011, a few days after his 78th birthday. Ted Leo’s latest album, The Brutalist Bricks, came out in 2010. Hail Leos.