The Mekons brought their Natural tour to a crazy and glorious conclusion last night (Oct. 12) with two amplified shows in Chicago, starting out at the venerable Hideout and then taking two CTA buses (North Avenue, followed by Western Avenue) to the Mutiny, which is a true punk-rock pit of a performance space for a free late show. I knew it would be a great night, my only doubt being the lack of singer Tom Greenhalgh, who had to head back home to England while the tour was still under way to attend to the birth of his fourth child. The Mekons without Tom? Not to worry. The band made up for his absence by recruiting an all-star cast of guest vocalists. Well, not exactly all-star – a few friends and/or audience members joined the band at a few points. But there were plenty of stars, an unexpected surprise that turned this night into a raucous celebration of what the Mekons are all about. (It was also a cool benefit with all proceeds going to Doctors Without Borders. Mekon Sally Timms noted that even the band members and club members paid to get in.)
The Hideout portion of the night started with a goofy opening set by Leonardo, the King of Rock, an Elvis impersonator with an iPod strapped to his wrist for karaoke versions of Elvis hits. He had a dancing chick, who seemed to be there strictly for the visuals. And then Tim Tuten, looking pretty dapper in a suit and hat, took the stage for one of his trademark intros – except that his intro this time was a little different than the typical prologue. Sounding like a gospel preacher, Tuten yelled out the lyrics to a few Mekons songs from a book he was holding in his hands. As he left and the Mekons mounted the stage, Sally Timms wryly remarked, “At least one person knows the words.”
The Mekons ran through a nice selection of old and new to relatively new tunes, including an especially rousing “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem.” The first guest vocalist of the night was the always-wonderful Kelly Hogan, who did a fab version of one of my favorite songs of all time, “Fletcher Christian.” And then, a few songs later, a big surprise – Will Oldham of Bonnie “Prince” Billy fame bounded onto the stage in a ratty tanktop that appeared to be about 50 years old, and sang a rendition of “Beaten and Broken” that sounded not that far off from Greenhalgh’s spirit. Chris Mills took the mike for “Heaven and Back,” which featured the usual leg kicks. After rousing the crowd with a lively “Last Dance,” the encore (before which the band did not bother leaving the stage) was the always-welcome “Wild and Blue” waltz.
And then it was off to the Mutiny. I have to confess the one portion of this extravaganza that I skipped was the bus ride. Having my car at the Hideout, I decided to drive instead. From what I hear, the CTA ride went smashingly well, without any time waiting for buses. Amazing. The Mutiny is a real dive, with no stage to speak of. Bands play way in the back, past a pool table, on a platform that is raised about six inches from the main floor. Junk is piled all over the place, including a vacuum cleaner, mop and bucket and barbecue-grill lid, which were on the floor near the spot I snagged, and a TV and bicycle stacked behind the “stage” on the other side. The lighting consists of two little lamps clamped to the low ceiling. If you’re standing more than a few feet back from the band and it’s crowded, good luck seeing anything. The place never charges a cover, and a sign in the front door says the bar is looking for bands to play. Boy, did they find one on Friday night.
Paul Burch did a nice little opening set of his country music, concluding with an excellent cover of the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks,” featuring Tracy Dear on lead vocals. Tuten introduced the Mekons again, talking up this show at the Mutiny as if it were the culimnation of their 30-year career. Then the Mekons launched into a more punk-centric set, opening with that song they sang three decades ago, “Never Been in a Riot.” The next surprise of the night came when they asked if Ted Leo was in the bar. It took a few minutes to find one, but then, sure enough, Leo squeezed his way through the crowd and took the microphone for another Mekons punk classic, “Where Were You?” At his request, he then sang “Corporal Chalkie,” after the Mekons spent a minute working out exactly what the chords were for this tune they obviously hadn’t prepared to play. Jon Langford did the a cappella rant “The Building” next.
Timms remarked, “We’re all guests tonight. The Mutiny is all about guests.” Langford: “We don’t have just one guest replacing Tom Greenhalgh.” Timms: “We have an Army.”
Oldham returned, this time singing “Fletcher Christian,” with Hogan chiming in, too. He then reprised “Beaten and Broken.” After Oldham and Hogan got super close at the mike, Langford cracked, “It’s like Donnie and Marie.” Timms: “In some alternate universe.” Oldham: “In a right universe.” Throughout the rest of the night, Oldham was standing behind the band, often jumping up and down with his arms raised above his head.
Uncle Dave sang “Fantastic Voyage,” Chris Mills did “Heaven and Back” again, and Tracy Dear did “Curse.” And when it was time for another encore-without-actually-leaving-the-stage, Langford said, “There’s only one more song we can did.” And then came that all-time-great roar of guitars, “Memphis, Egypt.” The fans pogoing up and down in front of the stage apparently hit one of the two lights, as it went dark halfway through the song. And it all came to a sweaty end.
Hideout set list
Abernant / Wine or Money / Oblivion / Tina / Thee Old Trip to Jerusalem / Fletcher Chrisian (with Kelly Hogan) / Millionaire / Hole in the Ground / Ghosts of American Astronauts / Beaten and Broken (with Will Oldham) / Slightly South of the Border / Heaven and Back (with Chris Mills) / Last Dance / Wild and Blue
Mutiny set list
Never Been in a Riot / Millionaire / Burning (with Martin ?) / Where Were You (with Ted Leo) / Corporal Chalkie (with Ted Leo) / The Building / Fletcher Christian (with Will Oldham and Kelly Hogan) / Beaten and Broken (with Will Oldham and Kelly Hogan) / Gogo Para Presidente excerpt (with Barry Mills) / I Love Apple (with Barry Mills) / Big Zombie / Fantastic Voyage (with Uncle Dave) / Hard to be Human / Heaven and Back (with Chris Mills) / Curse (with Tracy Dear) / Memphis, Egypt