When the Mekons teamed up with Freakwater, of course they called themselves the Freakons. As they’ve joked, the other option was Meekwater, a far less formidable-sounding portmanteau.
Actually, this collaborative group — which played a few shows last week, recording one of them for a forthcoming album — doesn’t include all of the Mekons. Its members are Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean plus two key members of the Mekons, Jon Langford and Sally Timms. Joining them are two fiddlers, Jean Cook and Anna Krippenstapel, and ubiquitous Chicago guitarist James Elkington.
It seems natural that the Mekons and Freakwater are collaborating, given their shared musical territory. The Mekons may be punks from England and Wales, but they’re steeped in a love of old American country, along with British folk. The Kentuckians in Freakwater have mined similar musical veins. The two outfits have even covered a few of the same songs. And now this conglomeration is making a record of songs about coal mining. All profits from the album will benefit Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a grassroots organization opposing mountaintop removal mining and promoting economic justice, voting rights, and Kentucky’s transition to new energy sources.
The Freakons played two shows at the Hideout last week, one of which was recorded for the album. I attended the other gig, on Sept. 10, as well a concert by the Freakons on Sept. 14 at a rustic venue in Spring Green, Wis., charmingly named The Shitty Barn. (Elkington played at the Hideout but was absent from the Shitty Barn show.) As the band members noted a few times, their songs tended to be sad and bleak. But there were several rousing songs inspired by the spirit of miners toiling away at their work — and as always, Langford and Timms were quick with humorous quips. The group even played a recording of Richard Burton telling some tall tales on the Dick Cavett show about his coal-mining father.
The songs (some original, some covers) included: “Chestnut Blight,” “Corrie Doon,” “Canaries,” “Dreadful Memories,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” “Abernant 1984/85,” “Johnny Miner,” “Trimdon Grange Explosion,” “Mannington Mine,” “Black Leg Miner,” “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Working in a Coal Mine.” After seeing these live shows, I look forward to hearing the Freakons’ album.
WEDNESDAY, NOV. 28, THE BURLINGTON — DAVID VANDERVELDE: This was the last of four Wednesday-night shows Vandervelde performed during his November “residency” at the Burlington; the only one that I managed to catch. He was in excellent form, playing several songs with buzzing guitar riffs and solos in the style of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But as always, he also reveled in power-pop melodies. On this occasion, his songs reminded me more than a little bit of Badfinger. Can’t wait to hear his next record. I showed up just in time to catch the last song and a half by Mazes, who seemed to be rocking pretty hard; and alas, I missed the first set of the night, by the Singleman Affair.
THURSDAY, NOV. 29, ALLSTATE ARENA — THE WHO: I hadn’t been planning to see The Who until I got a last-minute offer for a ticket. I’m glad I went. The one time I’d seen The Who before was their “farewell” tour in 1989. And I was skeptical about the whole idea of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend carrying on as “The Who” without either Keith Moon or John Entwistle. But as much as I’d prefer going in a time machine back to a Who concert circa 1967, they played a remarkably good show this time.
Daltrey’s vocals stayed strong. Townshend twirled his arm in that trademark windmill, making jagged shards out of his rhythm chords. And several musicians filled out the rest of the sounds as they performed the entirety of their complex 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia, followed by a short string of some greatest hits: “Who Are You,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” They should’ve ended the show there, but they went on, with Daltrey and Townshend alone on the stage doing an acoustic duet version of “Tea & Theatre,” from The Who’s 2006 album Endless Wire. It was actually nice to hear the two of them playing by themselves, but the song paled in comparison to everything that had come before it. Still, all in all, a memorable night of music by one of the world’s greatest rock bands — or what remains of it.
FRIDAY, NOV. 30, THE HIDEOUT — MIKE COOLEY: Patterson Hood gets the most attention in the Drive-By Truckers, but the other singer-songwriter-guitarist in the group, Mike Cooley, has been contributing great songs to the band’s albums since the beginning. He rarely plays solo gigs, so it was a privilege to see him sitting down with a couple of acoustic guitars on the Hideout’s stage. Cooley, who generally lets Hood do all the talking between songs at DBT shows, turned out to be a fairly talkative and wickedly funny guy. And what a pleasure to hear his songs in these plucked-acoustic arrangements, which often sounded quite a bit different than the full band versions. A friend who saw Cooley on Thursday night as well told me that he played a lot of different songs the previous night. As Cooley noted, he works without a set list, and he obligingly played some of the songs requested by enthusiastic fans. Highlights included “Zip City,” “Checkout Time in Vegas,” “Marry Me,””Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” and “When the Pin Hits the Shell.”
I had my camera at only one of these concerts, the Mike Cooley show. My photos: