Return of the Mekons

Is it possible for a band to prove its greatness at the same time that one of its concerts is degenerating into a train wreck of forgotten lyrics and aborted songs? It would not seem so, but that’s just part of the wonderful paradox that is the Mekons. Their late show last night (Sept. 28) at the Old Town School of Folk Music might be viewed as an utter failure if judged on the normal terms you judge a concert (Do the musicians remember how to play their songs?), but the Mekons know how to turn that ramshackle rehearsal vibe into something special.

Backing up just a little bit, I should note that the Mekons have been one of my favorite bands for a long time, ever since I saw MTV broadcast a short news segment about the Mekons recording Rock and Roll on A&M in 1989. That prompted me to pick up the record, which I loved, and to see them in concert for the first time, a show at Metro that bowled me over. I loved the great music as well as the playful camaraderie the band put across onstage. And then, oddly enough, a few of the Mekons migrated from England to my very city, Chicago. Jon Langford and Sally Timms became regular fixtures on the local scene. Now they’re easy to take for granted, but last night was a great reminder of how special the Mekons are. Hearing their early ’80s songs once again, I was struck anew by the sing-along melodies and those fabulous words. The Mekons often achieve a wonderful balance of intellectual depth and a colloquial quality in their words and tunes. Just read the lyrics collected in their 2002 book Hello Cruel World, and you’ll see what I mean. Few rock songwriters have ever done it better.

I was also struck recently by how much the Mekons seem like a forerunner of some recent hip bands. Of course, they were pioneers in the field that has become labeled as alt-country, though the Mekons had their own very English blend of country, folk and rock. The arrival of Langford and Timms in Chicago around the same time that Wilco moved to town and Bloodshot Records began had a lot to do with the alt-country revolution in Chicago and elsewhere.

But the Mekons are also an early example of the rock phenomenon that has become known as “the collective.” These days, it seems like everyone in Canada is part of about seven different rock collectives. The Mekons were doing this sort of thing ages ago. Although a few singers and personalities dominate the band, the Mekons always convey the sense that they’re a big bunch of friends collaborating on this project of theirs. The spotlight’s often on Langford, but Tom Greenhalgh, Sally Timms and Rico Bell are all excellent songwriters and singers in their own right, and all of the other musicians in this eight-piece outfit make invaluable contributions, too. Recently, when I saw the Arcade Fire at the Chicago Theatre, the music even sounded a little like the Mekons when the accordion and violins were mixing with the guitars.

Now I’m kicking myself for not seeing both of the shows that the Mekons performed last night at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I quite like the new record they released last month, Natural, an intriguing sort of pastoral music that sounds similar to but somehow different from everything they’ve done before. I interviewed Langford and Timms about the record for a story in Pioneer Press Newspapers, and I also hope to post a transcript from the interview here soon. I was looking forward to hearing the new songs in concert, but for that experience, I needed to be at the early show. The Mekons are playing sit-down shows, all dressed up in suits or formal wear. These concerts aren’t exactly unplugged and mellow affairs, though. The band can’t help but sound lively with all eight of those musicians plugging away at those songs.

For the second show of the night, the Mekons decided to do something different. Instead of playing anything from Natural or other recent records, the band played a set consisting almost entirely of old early-’80s songs from the Sin Records era. I would have liked to hear at least a few of the new songs, but I won’t complain much, because the old songs were a real treat.

The concert seemed to start falling apart a few songs in, when Bell cut off his rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” eventually doing it over at the audience’s insistence. And then Greenhalgh, who was jet-lagged from the previous day’s flight from England and maybe a little intoxicated, too, couldn’t get through his classic tune “Chivalry,” forgetting the lyrics and even having trouble singing them when he used the Mekons’ lyrics book as an aide. After that ramshackle song reached its end, he recited the words like poetry.

Throughout all of this tomfoolery, the Mekons joked about how they should have rehearsed more or played just one concert per night. Sally Timms taunted her bandmates about being unable to sing or recall lyrics, and at a few points people from the audience shouted at the band to play a song. On paper, this may sound like a terrible show, but you have to realize that the Mekons, in addition to being fine musicians and artists, are a damn funny bunch. So, even as they were procrastinating about playing songs, telling stories and forgetting tunes, the band was, as I said, paradoxically proving how great it is. How human. Maybe I should file this concert in the category of “You had to be there.”

Here’s what they played:

Fantastic Voyage
Abernant 1984/85
The Letter
Hole in the Ground
Sweet Dreams
Keep on Hoppin’
Prince of Darkness
Slightly South of the Border
Ghosts of American Astronauts
Lost Highway
Big Zombie
Hard to be Human
Last Dance
Heaven and Back
Beaten and Broken

Touch and Go Records was kind enough to provide me with a photo pass last night. The Old Town School’s not the easiest venue to photograph in. To avoid blocking the view of audience members, I stayed near the back and shot with my telephoto lens. And I was allowed to shoot only during the first couple of songs, so I missed the later moments when various members of the band stood up to sing at the center microphone. Greenhalgh, in particular, was pretty animated in a loopy way, performing a jet-lag jig of sorts. See my photos of the Mekons.

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