Billboard — To say that local music fans were surprised to see Against Me! and Ted Leo booked on Hilton Head is to substantially repurpose the definition of the word. If they’d have woken up tomorrow with their head sewn to the carpet they wouldn’t have been more surprised.
It’s tough to overstate how weird it was that an agit-punk show featuring the left-leaning Ted Leo + the Pharmacists and the lefter-leaning Against Me! occurred at all Hilton Head, a lovely and moneyed barrier island known more for its well-manicured golf courses, unmanageable traffic circles and superb landscaping than punk, or rock music, or music. Frankly, watching the smokers from the sweaty, multiply pierced punk crowd mingle outside with the Polo-and-khaki-shorts set from the adjacent swanky tourist piano bar was kind of worth the price of admission alone.
But that cognitive dissonance might have been part of the plan behind this election-season swing, a one-two punch of like-minded fellas that’s probably not visiting any cozier houses than this strip-mall club tucked next to a steakhouse and that piano bar. One could guess that the idea would be to energize the potential voters that make up their crowd, if either Leo or Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel had taken more than a handful of moments to address the current situation, even as Palin/Biden played out on TVs over the bar.
“This is a song about an issue probably being covered in the debate that we’re missing tonight,” Leo said in introducing “Army Bound.” (Although, that said, a stuttery, stammery impression of Palin he pulled off in response to a song request was one of the highlights of his set.)
In between talking, of course, Leo and the Pharmacists were all explosive, efficient business, shredding into speedy, barbed-wire rockers like “The Angels’ Share” and “Me and Mia” that they have by now sculpted to perfection. And a smattering of new songs, from a reported new album due next spring, snuggled right in: one called “Where Was My Brain?” in particular showed a little more rugged stomp than rat-a-tat roar.
There’s something a little incongruous about a brainiac, multi-syllabic punk band like Against Me! scoring biggest with something like “Stop!,” a self-empowerment stomper that fueled what was very likely Beaufort County’s first-ever mosh pit, and “Thrash Unreal,” a flight-worthy anthem about a failing wreck of a junkie girl. It’s all arena-sized melancholy, with sha-la-la background vocals and one devil of a hook — “No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to be a junkie.”
But it shares only occasional strands of DNA with the band’s earlier material, which roars off the stage in bursts of metallic, if supermelodic, punk energy and Gabel’s aggressively political rants: “We can control the medium / We can control the context of presentation” (a new song Gabel dedicated to John McCain — “come back home, Johnny, your war is over” — sported the night’s freshest shot of paper-cut wit). Lines like that have absolutely no business being delivered as well as Gabel and James Bowman knock them out like they’re organizing an army from scratch.
Tracks from the Butch Vig-decorated 2007 record “New Wave” dribble all sorts of ’80s goodness into the band’s punk attack, with bits of Clash, the Cars, even a smidgen of Springsteen. There’s lots going on in these songs, particularly the crunchy stomp of “Miami” and the duet with Tegan Quin, “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart” (Quin’s part was handled by Bowman), which interrupts the righteous rage with a little summer lovin’. Those tracks especially added extra dimensions to a night of traveling righteous fire and rage, worth checking out no matter where it stops.