Freakons at the Hideout and the Shitty Barn

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.

Freakons at the Hideout

Freakons at the Shitty Barn

Mid-February Concert Recap

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Langford, Timms and Fulks at the Hideout


Two of the Mekons — Jon Langford and Sally Timms — are preparing to tour Scotland in August, along with another member of Chicago’s alt-country scene, Robbie Fulks. And to help raise money for this trip, the three played together Sunday (July 13) at the Hideout. (Mark Guarino wrote a Sun-Times article about the whole Mekons-Fulks Scottish adventure.)

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.

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Magnolia Electric Co. at the Hideout

The new album by Magnolia Electric Co., Josephine, doesn’t come out until next week (July 21, to be precise), but the band was in Chicago this past weekend for a couple of shows. What’s with all the bands touring lately before their records are available? The assumption seems to be that the fans are going to hear advance copies anyway… Or maybe the bands see it as a good way to introduce their new material. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, you can usually buy copies of the new CDs and LPS at the merch table at these concerts, even if the albums aren’t officially available yet. And buying music straight from the band at the merch table seems like the surest way of putting money right into the musicians’ pockets. The prices are usually reasonable, too — $10 or less is the regular going price for CDs. I did pick up a copy of Josephine Sunday night (July 12) at the Hideout, and so far, it seems like an excellent addition to the Magnolia Electric Co. repertoire.

It’s too bad Chicago can’t quite claim that MECo (to use the common abbreviation for this band) is a local group any longer. Singer-songwriter-frontman Jason Molina used to live in Andersonville, and I once had the pleasure of interviewing him during an afternoon visit to Simon’s Tap. Lately, he’s been living in London, but thankfully he does make it back here once in a while to play gigs.

Sunday night’s show followed a gig on the previous night at Schubas, which I missed. The Hideout performance was very, very solid, with Molina and his Hoosier bandmates ripping through a fair number of new songs as well as old classics like “Riding With the Ghost.” I may have said this before on this blog, but I think that’s really one of the great songs of the last decade. From what I could tell from eyeing the guitar frets during this performance, Molina & Co. are playing it in a somewhat lower key than the studio version, which I have blundered my way through on acoustic guitar a few times. Guitarist Jason Evans Groth’s leads and solos on the rendition Sunday night were absolutely blazing, which more than made up for the fact that the band plays this song live without the female vocals that you hear on the studio version.

Josephine is a being billed as a concept album, “an honest-to-God effort on the part of Magnolia Electric Co. to pay tribute to the life and spirit” of the band’s former bassist, Evan Farrell, who died in late 2007. But it’s not a straightforward record about Farrell. Rather, it is filled with references to the woman in the title. I’m still making sense of how the lyrics in this song cycle fit together, but it’s suffused with longing and a sense of loss, topics that Molina has sung about before. In concert, the words sounded sincere, and so did the singing sound of those guitars.

An mp3 from the new Magnolia Electric Co. record, “Sad Little Eyes,” is available for download here.

The show had two opening acts. Sally Timms played another set similar to the one I wrote about recently at Schubas, backed once again by the subtle and pretty sounds of Mar Caribe. (

The first act of the evening was a cool discovery: Elephant Micah, will calls itself “an imaginary band since 2000.” Based in Bloomington, Ind., this is another one of those indie bands that basically started out as the recording project of one individual — in this case, Joe O’Connell. For this Hideout show, however, Elephant Micah seemed more like an actual folk-rock ensemble, playing some very quiet and gentle songs that had the audience silently spellbound. I later bought the Elephant Micah CD Hindu Windmill at the merch table. It’s very lo-fi — the sort of recording that includes the sound of the tape-recorder being turned off at the end of songs. The intimacy of it reminds me of the first recordings by Great Lake Swimmers. I’m excited to hear what Elephant Micah records in the future with the full band.

Photos of Magnolia Electric Co., Sally Timms and Elephant Micah.

Hey, Chris Mills and Sally Timms

Hey, Sally Timms: When are you going to release another solo CD? I’m asking because that set you played Sunday night (June 14) at Schubas sounded awfully good. And, well, it’s been a while.

Timms had a five-piece band playing behind her, with a delicate mix of banjo, mandolin, guitar, stand-up bass, clarinet, trumpet and drums, for a folky yet slightly jazzy sound. She played songs by her pal (and fellow Mekon) Jon Langford and others… even a cool version of the Mekons song “Corporal Chalkie.” And, as always, she had a delightfully wry and self-deprecating sense of humor.

She was the opening act for Chris Mills, which reminds me…

Hey, Chris Mills: Could you move back to Chicago? OK, I’m sure you have your reasons for being in New York, but you’re such a good singer-songwriter that I’d love to continue claiming you as one of Chicago’s best. Maybe I’ll continue claiming you anyway.

Mills was back in town for a one-off solo gig because he had a wedding to attend. (He played “In the Time of Cholera” at the wedding ceremony, apparently getting some puzzled looks from people unfamiliar with his music who saw that title in the program.) Mills is probably at his best when he has a full band playing him — one of the best things about this CDs is the lush and creative arrangements — but his songs also work really well as solo acoustic numbers. And that’s what he delivered Sunday night, singing in full-throated gusto.

Photos of Chris Mills and Sally Timms.

Sadies, Flat Five and Dream Day

Recapping a few shows from the past week…

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.

Photos of the Sadies and Tim Easton.

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.

Photos of the Flat Five.

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.

Photos of Eleventh Dream Day with Jon Langford and Sally Timms.