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.