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 Mekons have a new record called Existentialism— a lo-fi live CD of new songs performed into one microphone, with an accompanying book — but the band played just one of those new tunes on Monday, Sept. 19, at the Hideout. Instead of promoting the new material, the band delivered a typically rollicking set filled with most of its most beloved songs. Sally Timms said the Mekons would play fewer “hits” during the following night’s show at the Hideout; Jon Langford jokingly questioned whether that would be possible.
The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks came onstage and sang their song “The Sad Milkman” with the Mekons. And then, finally, as the Mekons came back for a second encore, the band played one song from the new album — it wasn’t printed on the set list — “Simone on the Beach,” which is inspired by the true story of French writer Simone de Beauvoir and her love affair with Chicago author Nelson Algren. It’s also a song that happens to mention the bar where the Mekons were playing on this night: “Did they drink at the Hideout, back in 1947? The house under the highway, in bed with him as container trucks roll by.”
SET LIST: Memphis, Egypt / Beaten and Broken / Tina / Millionaire / Diamonds / Abernant 1984-85 / Heaven and Back / Fantastic Voyage / Fletcher Christian / Orpheus / Now We Have the Bomb / Last Dance / Curse / Hard to Be Human
ENCORE: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem / The Sad Milkman / Big Zombie / Shanty / Where Were You
SECOND ENCORE: Simone on the Beach / Ghosts of American Astronauts
The Mekons took questions from the audience near the end of their set Monday evening at Chicago’s Poetry Foundation — which was billed as “A Quiet Night In with the Mekons: readings, writings and songs.” Someone asked what it was like being one of the last punk bands from the original 1977 era still standing. “We’ve had a long career, but it’s mostly because we haven’t thought of it as a career,” Jon Langford replied. Tom Greenhalgh observed that the music business tends to destroy bands and people. Rico Bell noted that the Mekons have stayed together for so long because they’re friends. And Lu Edmonds said, “The album that means the most to everyone in the band is the next one.”
The longevity and continued vitality of the Mekons are remarkable. This band just keeps going on and on, and I hope it never stops. Mekons tours don’t happen all that often, because the musicians are so spread out — some living in Chicago, others elsewhere in the U.S., some of them still residing in Great Britain, where the band got started. The group reconvened last week, practicing in Miller Beach, Ind., heading out on a short tour and making plans to record a new album — for the first time, making a record of new songs at a live performance. As Sally Timms explained Monday, “We’re doing to record a new record in the amount of time it takes to listen to it.”
Whenever Langford announces the band’s name and its place of origin in concert, he says, “We’re the Mekons from Leeds.” But since Langford and Timms live in Chicago, this city feels like the Mekons’ second home. And so it seemed fitting that the Mekons are playing four gigs in Chicago on this tour. I saw three of those shows: Friday, July 10, at the Square Roots Fest, a street festival in Lincoln Square; Saturday, July 11, at the Hideout; and Monday, July 13, at the aforementioned Poetry Foundation event. The Mekons are also playing another show at the Hideout on Wednesday.
All of the Mekons’ regular members were there except for bassist Sarah Corina. Dave Trumfio, who produced the Mekons’ 1994 record Retreat From Memphis, filled in on bass, with Langford introducing him as “Baron Von Trumfio.”
Mekons fans came from far and wide for these shows. On Saturday, I encountered people from St. Louis, Seattle, Austin, California and Kentucky at the Hideout. And I’ve talked with Chicago fans who are trekking to see the Mekons on Tuesday in Mineral Point, Wis., or at other shows east of Chicago. This is a band that inspires devotion from its fans — and the Mekons proved themselves worthy of such enthusiasm at their shows in Chicago over the past four days.
Even though they’re preparing to make a new record, they didn’t fill their concerts with those songs-in-progress. Instead, these were more like greatest-hits shows. On Friday, the Mekons threw down the gauntlet with their opening song, starting the show with that rampaging anthem, “Memphis, Egypt.” On Saturday, they saved that song for the end of the regular set. Both nights ended with their early punk classic, that urgent question “Where Were You?” Friday’s set included an especially lovely medley that blended the waltzes “Shanty” and “Wild and Blue.” Both nights were filled with rollicking rock, country hoedowns and plenty of choruses sung and shouted by the band’s four (or sometimes, even five) vocalists, prompting joyful singalongs and dancing in the crowd.
Greenhalgh, who’s really an essential part of this collective that lacks a single frontman, missed some Mekons concerts a few years ago. But he was back this time, and in great form, especially when he took the lead vocals on “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian.” And it was a true pleasure to hear the Mekons delivering a charging version of another great song from the So Good It Hurts album, “Fantastic Voyage,” on both Friday and Saturday. (Saturday’s show also featured a kicking opening set by the Ungnomes, a local teen punk band led by Jon Langford’s son, Jimmy.)
Monday’s show was decidedly different, with unplugged performances of several songs as well as recitations of poetry, fiction and Mekons lyrics. The band’s lyrics, which were collected in the 2002 book Hello Cruel World, have always been highly literate. Often composed as a group effort — a process Timms discusses in a recent Poetry Magazine article — Mekons lyrics avoid feeling pretentious or stiff or overwrought, but they manage to sneak some rather sophisticated ideas and allusions worthy of academic footnotes into those rock ’n’ roll songs. And so, when the various members of the Mekons stood up on Monday to recite lyrics as if they were poems, it came off as rather impressive. And the stripped-down versions of Mekons songs were beautiful.
At all three of these shows, the Mekons were loose without being sloppy or shambolic. They flubbed a few lyrics here and there, but those moments just gave the Mekons another reason to laugh at themselves and carry on, making life-affirming music the way they’ve been doing since 1977.
The Mekons performing Friday, July 10, at the Square Roots Fest in Lincoln Square.
The Mekons performing Saturday, July 11, at the Hideout, with opening act the Ungnomes.
The Poetry Foundation
The Mekons performing Monday, July 13, at the Poetry Foundation.
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.
I saw three documentaries, all of them worth seeing:
Joe Angio’s long-awaited Revenge of the Mekons — a compelling, funny and inspiring telling of this great band’s unusual and seemingly never-ending story. Mekons Jon Langford and Sally Timms answered questions with Angio after the sold-out screening at Lincoln Hall, and they even did one Mekons song (“Tina”) a cappella. (See the trailer for the film here.)
Boyce & Hart: The Guys Who Wrote ‘Em — a portrait of the ’60s songwriting duo who wrote many of the Monkees’ songs. The film has a lot of great archival film clips and photos. Bobby Hart (who appeared after the screening) narrates much of the film, which makes the interesting choice of showing no talking-head interviews. Before the screening, a group of local musicians calling themselves the Candy Store Prophets (including Phil Angotti) performed a lively set of Boyce & Hart tunes in the Logan Theatre’s lounge, with dancing by several ladies wearing 1960s-style outfits.
The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music — a history of country music’s founding family. It’s a good film on an important topic — including an interview with the late Johnny Cash — but the attempts at turning historic photos into animation are awkward and distracting. Before the screening, Lawrence Peters played a cool set of mostly Johnny Cash songs in the Logan Theatre’s lounge.
Yo La Tengo & Phil Cohran
The CIMM Fest concerts I caught included a strong set by Yo La Tengo at Concord Hall on May 1. In typical fashion, the trio ran the gamut from very quiet folk music to loud droning punk rock. The evening’s opening act, onetime Sun Ra collaborator Phil Cohran, returned to the stage to join in with Yo La Tengo for a Sun Ra tune. YLT’s main set climaxed with some of the wildest guitar-tossing I’ve ever seen Ira Kaplan do. Following that rave-up, the encore finished with one of my favorite quiet Yo La Tengo songs, a lovely, low-key version of “My Little Corner of the World.” Kaplan said it was a request the band had received by email, noting that it seems like Yo La Tengo has played the song often during its Chicago concerts. Well, that’s just fine with me.
Mary Shelley scores ‘Potemkin’
Mary Shelley — a trio consisting of Local H’s Scott Lucas, former Smashing Pumpkin drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and bassist Mark Ulery (of Matt Ulery’s Loom) — performed a live score to the silent Soviet film classic Battleship Potemkin at 1st Ward on May 2. The thunderous riffs were truly epic, and the band followed up the film with one bonus song, a cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.”
Willis Earl Beal
At the Hideout on May 2, Willis Earl Beal — wearing a Green Hornet mask — showed a short film he’d made, and then he played a recording of some new songs. He asked for the venue to turn off all the lights in the room, urging people not to walk out as his music played in almost total darkness. A few people did walk out, abandoning what turned out to be more of a listening party than an actual concert.
On May 3, the English band These New Puritans headlined a CIMM Fest concert at the Empty Bottle, performing impressive set of its arty rock, blending chamber music with post-punk. This band keeps changing up its modus operandi from one record to the next, but it always remains interesting.
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.