Oct. 11 was Jon Langford’s 60th birthday, and it was also the date of a release party at the Hideout for his latest record. Of course, this prolific Chicago musician who never seems to stop creating would spend his birthday on a stage.
His latest project is a great one: The album is called Four Lost Souls, which is also the name of the group he assembled for some recording sessions in the fabled area around Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In addition to Langford, the Four Lost Souls include vocalists Tawny Newsome and Bethany Thomas and guitarist-singer John Szymanski.
As the Chicago Reader noted in a feature story, Langford ditched his usual process of writing songs on guitar, opting to create them on piano instead. He did sit down at the Hideout’s piano during another recent gig (with the Freakons), but despite the piano origins of his Four Lost Souls tunes, he played them all on guitar. They’re recognizable as the sturdy sort of rock and country songs Langford is known for, but his collaborators add different flavors to the sound. It’s great to hear Newsome and Thomas singing, whether it’s adding the heft of their harmonies or stepping to the forefront with occasional lead vocals. That’s true of the record, and the strength of that singing was loud and clear during the Hideout show.
Ever since Langford moved from Britain to Chicago, this Welsh punk rocker has championed American roots music in its many forms. With this project, he carries on that tradition, sounding as devoted as he ever has to making great music and having a good time while he does it. Happy 60th, Mr. Langford.
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.
The Rizdales — a country band from London, Ontario — played Aug. 20 at the Hideout, apparently playing in Chicago for the first time ever. Although the group records original music by the husband-and-wife songwriting team Tom and Tara Dunphy, its most recent album is Blue Ain’t The Word: A Tribute to the Music of Ray Price, and this show was a tribute to Price and his music. Three Chicago singers joined the Rizdales onstage during the show: Jon Langford, Rachel Drew and Lawrence Peters, who also opened the concert. It made for an enjoyable night of old-fashioned country music.
Quick recaps of a few concerts (and other literary musical event) I’ve seen recently:
OLIVIA CHANEY and MARK DVORAK: The English singer Olivia Chaney was enchanting as she made her Chicago debut as a solo artist on Feb. 12 at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Szold Hall. She alternated between piano, guitar and harmonium, with accompaniment on many songs from violinist Jordan Hunt, but the focus stayed on her dulcet voice through the show. She has the sort of voice that would lend itself well to melodramatic pop ballads, but she takes a more understated approach, passionately singing songs that are mostly rooted in the traditions of English folk music. I’m looking forward to hear debut record, The Longest River, coming in March from Nonesuch. oliviachaney.net
Chaney’s opening act was the longtime Chicago folk musician Mark Dvorak, who did a marvelous job of telling stories to set up his songs and get the audience involved in the performance. This was what folk music is all about. markdvorak.com
SLEATER-KINNEY and LIZZO: I was just as surprised as anyone when Sleater-Kinney sneakily revealed that it had reunited and recorded a new album. I loved the last Sleater-Kinney record, The Woods, when it came out in 2005. And the four concerts I saw by this trio around that time were terrific. Back together after a decade-long hiatus, the band sounds as strong as ever. Its new album, No Cities to Love, is an early contender for the best album of 2015, and Sleater-Kinney’s Feb. 17 show at the Riviera set the bar high for concerts of the year. Corin Tucker wailed with astounding force, her voice — one of the great rock ’n’ roll voices — hitting powerful peaks. But what was truly marvelous was watching and listening as Tucker traded off vocal parts with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, echoing the way Tucker and Brownstein’s guitar riffs ping-ponged across the stage while Weiss pounded the drums with driving intensity. To see the set list and a nicely vivid description of the show, read Greg Kot’s review for the Tribune, which also has some cool photos by Chris Sweda. I wasn’t familiar with the opening act, hip-hop artist Lizzo, but she showed off some soulful vocals and seemed just as excited as anyone to be seeing Sleater-Kinney. sleater-kinney.com lizzomusic.com
THE WESTERN ELSTONS:I’ve written about my love for the Flat Five. The Western Elstons, another great band, include three members of the Flat Five: Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall, as well as a rotating lineup of other musicians. It’s easy enough to see the Western Elstons — they regularly play free shows at Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville, usually on the third Wednesday of the month. Even though Chicago was in a deep freeze on the night of Feb. 18, I stopped into Simon’s and was delighted by the fun and virtuosic performance these boys gave in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd. A highlight for me was the cover of the Kinks’ “Picture Book.”
GREIL MARCUS with JON LANGFORD and SALLY TIMMS: The legendary rock critic Greil Marcus spoke on Feb. 19 at the Old Town School of Music about his new book, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, with musical accompaniment by Jon Langford and Sally Timms, two members of a band he has championed over the decades, the Mekons. As Marcus explained, he insisted on avoiding obvious songs in his history of rock, focusing instead on appreciations of lesser-known classics such as “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies. Showing his enthusiasm for the craft of writing and recording great music — and his keen interest in the stories behind great music — Marcus offered astute observations about Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him” and Joy Division’s “Transmission” — and then Langford and Timms illustrated by playing their own versions.
SWANS and XYLOURIS WHITE: I never saw Swans when the band was together during its original era, from 1982 to 1997, but I’ve been entranced by the dark music Swans has released since leader Michael Gira reformed the group in 2010. Playing on Saturday, Feb. 21, at Thalia Hall, Swans paused only a handful of times during two hours of droning, throbbing, thrumming, pounding, chanting and arm waving. It was epic. younggodrecords.com
The opening act, Xylouris White, is a duo consisting of George Xylouris on Cretan lute and Jim White on drums. White, who has played with the Dirty Three, Nina Nastasia and Cat Power among many others, was as impressive as always, adding an edge of chaos to his circling rhythms. And he’s found a good match in Xylouris, who got his lute strings vibrating with blinding speed. Xylouris also sang a few songs. It was music that might get lumped into that amorphous category “world music,” yet it felt like a perfect fit for Swans. Both artists leaned into their songs with fierce determination. xylouriswhite.com
As I’ve said before, the Hideout Block Party is one of the Chicago outdoor concert season’s most enjoyable events. For the past few years, it has merged with the Onion/A.V. Club’s festival, and this past weekend’s lineup seemed to reflect the tastes of that publication as much as the usual fare you’d expect from the Hideout.
Friday’s shows were dampened a bit by the rain that fell early in the evening, with some occasional sprinkles throughout the night. Weather delays shortened the sets — I especially wish that the Handsome Family had been given more time, but their gothic alt-country songs were actually a perfect fit with the gloomy weather. Jon Langford presented the first gig ever by yet another Jon Langford band, the cleverly named Bad Luck Jonathan, playing songs that seemed to hark back to early rock ‘n’ roll. Walkmen lead singer Hamilton Leithauser played a solo show — or rather, a show backed by a new band, all of which sounded very much like the Walkmen. And Death Cab for Cutie closed out the night, playing for the last time (ever?) with departing lead guitarist Chris Walla.
The weather was perfect on Saturday for the festival’s second day, which kicked off with a Hideout Block Party tradition: the droning of massed guitars known as the Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, featuring anyone who brought a guitar, all of them joining in the din from the parking lot in front of the stage. Other highlights on Saturday afternoon included the old-timey acoustic blues and gospel music of Valerie June, the electronic pop songs of Sylvan Esso, and the jamming of the Funky Meters (including a bit of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”). The appeal of Mac DeMarco escapes me, but his fans seemed to be enjoying his performance. The Dismemberment Plan is another band I don’t really get. But Saturday’s headliner, the War on Drugs, gave a strong performance, filled with electrifying guitar solos by frontman Adam Granduciel. The War on Drugs was a stripped-down trio the first time I saw the band, at Schubas in 2008; last night, Granduciel had five musicians backing him up and fleshing out the sound, but the group is still basically his voice and his guitar.
Most of the songs at Sunday’s show came from the Mekons’ vast discography, including a few deep cuts. It was cool to hear Fulks adding his acoustic guitar leads and solos to these songs, and he even sang lead vocals on the classic tune “Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian,” usually sung by Tom Greenhalgh. (That’s one of the songs you can hear in the appearance Langford, Timms and Fulks made on WBEZ.) And it was really lovely to hear Timms sing one of Fulks’ songs, “In Bristol Town One Bright Day.”
The trip to Scotland will include a recording session — so we can expect to hear some new music by the Mekons, or some version of the band anyway, someday soon.
Almost without fail, the Hideout Block Party is one of the summer’s most entertaining festivals — and that hasn’t changed over the past couple of years, when it combined with the A.V. Club’s A.V. Fest. It feels like a gathering of old friends — in the middle of an concrete-block and corrugated-metal cityscape, with a whiff of trash wafting over from all of the city garbage trucks parked nearby.
The banner on this year’s stage, created by the great Chicago poster artist Jay Ryan, depicted garbage trucks tumbling in midair. And on Friday night, the Streets & Sanitation odors were stronger than usual. As Kelly Hogan wryly noted (during Neko Case’s concert, where she was providing her delightful-as-usual harmony vocals): “That breeze feels great even though it smells like dumpster juice.” The smell was worth putting up with because of all the great music, and thankfully, the wind was blowing in another direction on Saturday.
Unfortunately, the crowd was chatty on Friday night during the sets by Case and Mavis Staples. Wandering around the parking lot, it wasn’t easy to find an area where you could hear the music clearly without being distracted by nearby conversations. As usual, the audience members closest to the stage were the most attentive, and a hush finally fell over most of the crowd when Case daringly performed “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” an a cappella song from her new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder IFight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. The song delivers a fairly stunning emotional impact in the studio version, and it was only heightened in the live performance. That was the highlight of the night, but the rest of Case’s set was lovely, too — such a subtle mix of tough and tender. The final song of the night was her 2002 classic “I Wish I Was the Moon,” and she performed the opening verse a cappella (or nearly so) — the same way she did the song during the Solid Sound Fest this summer. And once again, Case’s voice rang out with clarity. See more of my photos from Neko Case’s performance.
Earlier in the evening, Mavis Staples ably demonstrated the power of her own voice. The matriarch of Chicago gospel recently had knee surgery, and she told the crowd, “This is my very first concert with the new knee. So I’m going to call this knee ‘the Hideout.'” Staples, who recorded a live album inside the Hideout, does genuinely seem to love the place, and the reception that she gets whenever she plays there.
Staples’ voice sounded tentative during the first song, her cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” (from her excellent new album One True Vine), but there was nothing uncertain about her vocals in the rest of the set, as she gave full-throated glory to songs new and old. Closing with the Staple Singers’ classic “I’ll Take You There,” she exhorted the audience to sing along, taunting that the crowd’s first attempt at joining in was “weak.” See more of my photos from Mavis Staples’ performance.
Friday also featured the scrappy garage rock of Nude Beach and the acoustic jamming of Trampled by Turtles.
Saturday was a festive day in the garbage-truck parking lot. I just barely missed the opening set by the Guitarkestra (though I heard the roar of its chord in the distance as I walked up to the Hideout). I arrived in time for a fabulous set by Girl Group Chicago — five singer and 15 musicians, if I counted correctly, playing big renditions of classic girl group songs, joined onstage by the dancing gals known as the Revelettes. See more of my photos from Girl Group Chicago’s performance.
It wouldn’t be a Hideout Block Party without a performance by Jon Langford, and for this one, he played with a new lineup of his Skull Orchard band, playing a new song on the timely topic of “endless war” and closing with a cover of the Faces’ “Debris.” He also played “Haunted,” the song he wrote for Kelly Hogan’s album of last year. “The royalty checks are flooding in,” he joked. “They almost match the parking tickets.”
Next up was the Both, a duo comprising Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. They’ve recorded an album together, and their musical styles blended with surprising ease during this set, despite some technical difficulties with the mix during the first couple of songs.
The Walkmen sounded as intense as ever during their late-afternoon set; lead singer Hamilton Leithauser was unrelenting.
It was bittersweet to see Superchunk for the first time without the band’s longtime bass Laura Ballance, which is still recording with the group but has retired from touring. But Jason Narducy did a fine job of handling duties on bass, even getting into Superchunk’s bouncy, jumpy spirit. It seemed like lead singer Mac McCaughan’s feet were a few inches above the stage at just about any given moment during the show, and Superchunk was as lively and exciting as it ever was. New songs, like set opening “FOH,” sounded terrific alongside oldies like “Slack Motherfucker.” And in some comments to the crowd, McCaughan paid tribute to all of the Chicago people and institutions that helped Superchunk over the years, including the Lounge Ax, Steve Albini and Touch and Go Records. See more of my photos from Superchunk’s performance.
As darkness fell, the Hold Steady launched into a loud and raucous set. The fans along the barricade by the stage clearly loved frontman Craig Finn’s shout-singing and wild gestures. Since keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band, its sound has been all guitars, all the time. The nonstop riffing in the first half of the set was a bit much, but when the Hold Steady dug into its back catalog for some of its catchiest choruses at the end, all was well in Hideoutville.
Saturday’s headliner was Young the Giant. Who? … OK, I had heard of this group, but I’ve just barely heard its music. And I knew plenty of other people who turned out to see Superchunk or the Hold Steady and who were largely unfamiliar with Young the Giant. Judging from the people who crowded near the stage at the end of the night, most of Young the Giant’s fans are in their late teens or early 20s. And well … to my ears, Young the Giant’s music was rather bland and generic pop rock. It paled in comparison to the other music I’d been hearing all day. But I can’t complain too much, given how much fun the whole weekend was.
The Hideout celebrated its 15th anniversary in true Hideout style, with a day full of top-notch music. Even the weather turned out pretty nice on Saturday (Sept. 24) — a little chilly at times, but without the downpours of rain or hail that had been predicted. It was a perfect day for the Hideout Block Party, and the diverse concert lineup was a superb representation of musicians who consider the Hideout as their home base, stars who have played there in the past and simply great musicians.
During his set (the final one of the night), Andrew Bird reminisced about sleeping in the Hideout’s upstairs offices a few times! “I don’t know what would’ve happened if it weren’t for the Hideout,” he said, echoing remarks a lot of people on the stage made throughout the day. Bird played several of his most popular songs, but he also tried out several new tunes, bringing out Nora O’Connor to sing harmony vocals (and a verse on one of the songs). His encore was a lovely cover of the Handsome Family song, “So Much Wine” — an apt choice.
Earlier, Bird and O’Connor both made guest appearances during a rousing set by Mavis Staples, who raved about how much she loves the Hideout. “If I could be, I’d be here every day,” she said. “They treat us like royalty.” Staples also made some cutting remarks about the turmoil in today’s American politics, adding an even more passionate edge to her songs that evoke the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That “tea” that’s become a symbol of conservative Republicans? Staples said it’s Kool-Aid. Bird joined in when Staples played the Band’s “The Weight,” and Staples called Nora O’Connor (who did backup vocals on the last Staples album) her “sister.”
Another highlight was the set by the legendary Booker T. Jones, who played some of his recent material as well as the most famous songs he wrote back in the ’60s: “Time Is Tight,” “Born Under a Bad Sign” (originally recorded by Albert King, written by Jones and William Bell) and, of course, “Green Onions.” Jones played guitar on a few songs, but the Hammond organ (played through the Leslie rotating speaker cabinet) is truly his instrument, and those thick notes sounded as cool as ever.
The set by Jon Langford’s Skull Orchard was deepened by the inclusion of the Burlington Welsh Men’s Chorus, who added their strong voices to Langford’s songs inspired by his memories of Wales. Earlier, White Mystery rocked with typical abandon for the small crowd that showed up at the start of the day, with their red hair flying. Kids These Days played a lively blend of musical styles (hip-hop, indie rock, horns). The Eternals were even funkier than usual. Andrew Bird’s drummer, Dosh, also played a short set of his multilayered instrumental compositions, which led into Bird’s set and the appearance of an illuminated whale coming through the crowd, courtesy of the musical performance art group that calls itself Opera-Matic. That’s just the sort of thing you’d expect to see at a Hideout Block Party.
The Sadies were back in town Thursday (Dec. 4) for a show at Schubas, kicking off a tour with the estimable Tim Easton as opening act. The Sadies don’t have a new record out (not since releasing my favorite album of 2007, New Seasons), so we didn’t get any new songs, but there were plenty of great old tunes – something like 30, I think, if you include all those short instrumentals they ripped through. As always, the Good brothers were simply amazing on their guitars, and I took special notice this time that Travis was playing without any effects pedals at all, and Dallas had just a couple of rudimentary pedals. Further proof that you don’t need a lot of special effects to make the guitar sing. Highlights included covers of “A House is Not a Hotel” by Love and “Shake Some Action” by the Flaming Groovies. Easton put on a good show, too, playing solo acoustic (over chatty crowd noise) and mentioning that he has an album coming out in the spring with more of a rock sound.
Friday night (Dec. 5) marked the return of the Flat Five, a sort of local super group combining the talents of Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, KC McDonough and Gerald Dowd in an idiosyncratic cover band. Well, it’s mostly covers. They play a few originals, but it’s largely old pop, country, jazz, psychedelic and standard songs they clearly love. Their voices blend into truly lovely harmonies, and they have a knack for picking the sort of terrific tunes that a die-hard record collector loves. I stayed for both the early and late shows at the Hideout, and heard them doing everything from Spanky & Our Gang to the Dukes of Stratosphear, Rutles and Hoagy Carmichael. These are some special musicians who rarely put our records. You really have to catch them live to see what they’re all about.
I was back at the Hideout on Sunday (Dec. 7) for a show benefitting Goldie’s Place, an organization that helps the homeless get jobs. The show featured Jon Langford playing solo, followed by Eleventh Dream Day, and Eleventh Dream Day combining with Langford and Sally Timms for several Mekons and Three Johns songs. It was a lively affair, with a couple of strong new songs by Eleventh Dream Day (new album coming soon, guys? Let’s hope…), sloppy but fun renditions of those barely rehearsed Mekons songs and tighter performances of the Three Johns songs. All for a good cause.
Yet another benefit for a musician without health insurance. Yet another reminder of what an awful system (or lack of system) we have in the United States for making sure everyone gets the health care they deserve. This time, it was Waco Brothers drummer Joe Camarillo, who was recently injured in a car accident.While Camarillo recuperates, some of his musical pals teamed up for a benefit show at the Hideout. I missed the headlining final set of the night by the Wacos (I can only blame sleepiness for my early departure), but caught three wonderful performances.
First up was Scott Ligon, accompanied by Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. They’d recently played a series of shows at Davenports, a venue for cabaret music. Now, this is an interesting development, because I’ve been thinking for a while that the music of Hogan and Ligon would appeal to a lot of people outside the “alt-country” niche. People who like Norah Jones, vocal jazz or plain old Great American Songbook music would find a lot to like in the songs they’re doing, both originals and interpretations of classics and obscurities. When Hogan made those live recordings at the Hideout a while back (whatever happened to that album???), I thought the jazz critics should have been there to hear it. Anyway, at tonight’s gig, Ligon was the ringleader, playing some really, really nice originals, side by side with songs by Brian Wilson and Hoagy Carmichael, with Hogan and O’Connor adding truly beautiful harmonies.
Most of the same musicians stayed onstage for the next set, by O’Connor — more vocal beauty was in store. It just made me long for her to put out another album. She became a mom recently, so parenthood may be her priority for the moment, but I’d love to hear another recording from her.
Next up was yet another Jon Langford band/project. Does this guy ever go to sleep? This latest venture is a duo called the KatJon Band — Langford plus drummer Katrin Bornfeld of the Dutch band The Ex. I’m not familiar with the music of The Ex, but this set certainly got me interested. Kat’s an amazing drummer, playing lively and complex rhythms that sounded almost like a marching band at times. She played with a calm demeanor as if she were barely exerting herself, often breaking out into a smile or smirk. Her drumming brought out some sides of Langford’s guitar playing that I haven’t heard too much recently — more aggressive and edgy than the typical rhythm guitar he plays with most of his other bands of late. They played an interesting set of music, including songs by the Mekons, Ex and Three Johns, plus a George Jones cover. It was one of the best Langford performances I’ve seen in the last few years.
A concert at 4 p.m.? What gives? Hideout honcho Tim Tuten explains that Jon Langford has been organizing some special concerts at the club every several weeks, and this time, he called up Tim with a late-breaking opportunity to bring the legendary Wreckless Eric to the Hideout, along with Amy Rigby. The club was already booked for that night, but a recent charity gig by Freakwater at 4 p.m. had been a success, so Tuten thought, Why not?
Tuten was in rare form with his logorrheic introduction to the whole affair – so much so that Langford’s first words, following Tuten’s intro, were, “I’m exhausted.” Langford played only songs from his new album, Gold Brick, and they sounded very good in concert.
Amy Rigby followed with a short but tasty set of her songs, including several from her 2005 album, Little Fugitive, which I liked quite a bit. She closed with the wonderful “Dancing With Joey Ramone.” Rigby said her daughter, who’s getting ready to go to college, was present, and she joked that she wants her to go into a career that’ll support her mom’s music. (“Just don’t do one of those ‘Girls Gone Wild’ tapes!”)
Then came Wreckless Eric, who hadn’t played in Chicago since 1980. One of my regrets in 2005 was missing his appearance at SXSW, so this was a great opportunity to make up for that. To be honest, I didn’t know any of his songs other than “Whole Wide World” (which I became familiar with through the Rhino D.I.Y. collections)… During his set, Langford had remarked that Wreckless Eric was an inspiration to the Mekons when they were starting. “That was sort of the template for the Mekons,” he said. “It’s Ok to be punk and sensitive at the same time.” And Rigby said, “I’m very excited he’s playing today. I’m just a fan.”
Even though I was unfamiliar with most of the songs, I found Wreckless Eric immediately engaging. Playing solo, he reminded me a little of Robyn Hitchcock. And he was an entertaining raconteur as he told stories and jokes over his guitar grooves – and didn’t hesitate in telling some of the chattier people in the back of the room to shut their gobs. “Fucking hell, what are you talking about back there? I’m trying to do business up here.”
He introduced his biggest hit by sarcastically noting the similarity to Sting’s later song, “Fields of Gold” — “It’s by Sting, but I’m going to sing it with the correct lyrics.”
He also read a short bit from his memoirs (“I’m going to read it to you whether you like it or not”), and then brought out Amy Rigby to play with him on the last few numbers.
It was quite an entertaining way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Or as Eric put it (describing one particular moment of noise, not the whole show): “Sounded like a fire in a banjo factory.” Let’s hope Eric doesn’t wait so long before his next visit to Chicago.
Jan. 21 — “The Executioner’s Last Songs,” which Jon Langford performed Friday and Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a mix of concert, staged reading, performance art and video projection. Nothing too pretentious, thankfully… Despite the title, only a small part of the show (the last section) is about Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts recording their anti-death-penalty albums.
For the most part, it’s Langford talking about growing up in Wales, going to art school, discovering punk, forming the Mekons, coming to the U.S. and meeting Lester Bangs, etc. etc., eventually discovering country music via the Chicago WZRD deejay Terry Nelson (who was in attendance for the MCA shows)…
The music was a mix of Langford solo stuff, the Mekons, Wacos, PVC, covers (Tom Jones’ “Deliliah,” introduced as “the Welsh national anthem”). It was kind of interesting hear Langford play “Memphis, Egypt” and throw in a spoken interlude explaining the story behind some of the lyrics — concerning a trip to East Berlin, where they found it impossible to buy any Communist souvenirs.
When I saw this last year at SXSW, it was just Langford, Sally Timms and the violinist Jean Cook, with Langford doing almost all of the reading.
This time, he had those two, plus Tony Maimone playing an odd banjo bass, a drummer (sorry, can’t remember who off the top of my head)… and some of the others, mostly Timms and Cook, did some of the reading.
Highlights included some clips from the aborted TBS kids show that starred Langford as “The Salty Old Sea Dog,” a pirate inside a tiny boat inside a bathroom sink reciting nonsensical poetry. (The show also featured “Cowboy Sally.”)
Anyway, it was all pretty fun, though it did go on a bit long. And the MCA theater is one of those venues that has good sound and sightlines but feels a little too staid for a rock concert.
This was more polished than the version I saw last year, but some of the best moments were the mistakes and ad libs… such as when Timms egged Langford into pretending he was Russell Crowe.