Friday, September 28, 2007

I Have Been To Heaven And Back

oooh! the abyss is so close to home

there's an angel standing here at the end of this song, his eyes are staring his mouth is open, his wings are spread, his face is turned toward the past. Sees what was learned. Where we perceive a chain of events he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage up on wreckage hurling it in front of his feet. This angel here would like to stay and awaken up the dead and make whole what has been smashed apart. But a storm is blowing from paradise. The storm propels him in to the future to which his back is turned while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what w call progress.

oooh! the abyss is close to home

In 1977, England was mired in massive unemployment, especially among the young, and America was wallowing in recession, still limping from Watergate and Vietnam, while the Cold war loomed over everyone. Against this backdrop Punk exploded, becoming another Threat To Society when the Sex Pistols said a bad word on the telly.

The Mekons formed in this melee, signing to Virgin Records in the first flush of punk capitalistic co-option. But they never had the nihilistic outlook of many punks: While songs like "32 Weeks" and "The Building" railed against authoritarian corporate control and "Corporal Chalkie" was a dark anti-war song, they were writing other songs like "Dan Dare" which celebrated a comic book (from which they got their name) and "Where Were You?" was about being stood up in a bar.

A bit later, a music critic told them that they were part of a folk tradition, where their inexperience at music became part of the songs, and a DJ said that they were really a weird Country band, because all their songs were about drinking and screwing up relationships.

In Fact, the band has always looked far more closely at the interpersonal than the political. Even though Reagan, Thatcher, Nixon and the CIA show up from time to time, the songs are more about how people were affected by the political. The Mekons eyes have always been looking at the human element.

With the most recent album, some kind of 30 year cycle has been turned and completed; Natural is heavy with English folk influences, and the band trades instruments on the album, keeping their encroaching professionalism from becoming too distracting.

Rushing about before the show, I zipped up to Hotcakes Gallery; the Mekons are also artists, and they had a group show reception and opening. Nice stuff, and I obtained a long-desired soundtrack to their previous traveling art exhibit, "Out Of Our Heads" None of the artists were there; the proprietor said they were "performing a sound check"

"A Sound Check?!?" I exclaimed, to the amusement of the only other person there yet "That's not Punk Rock! When did they develop this suspicious professionalism?"

But I had to leave, and not just because I was disrupting the studio; I had to meet up with folks and get some food before the show; Bar louie was having an anniversary party, free food and beer.

Getting to the Pabst in plenty of time, it was a bit sparse; no problem getting seats right in front and a couple of Pabst tall boys to start. Danbert Nobacon (pronounced in a way that would alarm Pinko Punko), formerly of Chumbawumba, opened with a tight set of angry, populist songs railing against capitalism, religion and the end of the world. Nice stuff, and Jon Langford joined in for a couple of songs on guitar.

At least by then the theater had filled a bit, maybe a hundred people. One guy I talked to said he hadn't seen the band in 20 years. (Also, a quick shout out to Chloe, Merch Girl: we descended on the table, peppering her with obscure questions about the swag and the band, questions for which she had no answers, she held up with grace and humor, though, and I procured some nice posters and Tom's new album)

The Mekons took the stage to hearty cheers. Eight Mekons this time; the standard group was joined by Lu Edmonds on saz and Jessica Billey on violin. They sat in a semicircle on stage; drummer Steve Goulding sat on what they referred to as 'the commode', a drum box. They opened with a jumping "Last Dance" and Tom singing; apparently his plane was late and he hit the theater shortly before taking the stage. It didn't hurt his performance.

The band worked through songs old and new; "Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem" was hot and propulsive; "Big Zombie" was another high point. The new songs come through even better live - they played "Dark Dark Dark", "Dickie, Chalky and Nobby", "Perfect Mirror", "Give Me Wine or Money", "Cockermouth", and a sublime version of "The Hope and The Anchor" The audience was perfectly quiet until Sally finished the last, whispered vocal; everyone was hanging on her last, reluctant word.

Sally's voice was in particularly fine form; as a first encore, they performed a superb version of "Wild and Blue"

Depending on the song, from time to time a band member would step to the center mic to take vocals, like in an old fashioned folk or country revue. The collective character of the band was reinforced by the how uncomfortable they seemed to be doing this (all except Jon, of course; the big ham even accepted a dollar from an audience member for his 'pole dance')

we're all older, and this was joked about often by the band. But sitting throughout most of the performance was more salutary than I thought it would be. While the 'Quiet Night' was only moderately quiet, the performances were all lively and nothing ever got sleepy. The seated performance suited well, although at the end, Tom, Sally, Jon and Lu got restless and stood to do the kick routine on "I Have Been To Heaven And Back"

The songs, as has been noted, have a relatively dark relationship with nature in general. Where Danbert's songs were overtly political, the Mekons played songs on the edge of the darkness, but for humanity. Several times during the show, the songs and lyrics and the ferocious energy with which the band played brought tears of joy to my eyes. AG may tease and call me a crybabby, but if I feel a bit of pity if she's never been similarly moved by such a performance, a thing of rough, unhewn beauty.

30 years ago, the Mekons were angry young folks, snarling at the world they were born in and the life they were doomed to lead, demanding the freedom to enjoy simple, human pleasures. Now, as middle aged folks, more skilled and experienced, they are still snarling at the at the world and at doom, all the while still insisting that humor and music and art and love are still worthwhile, even necessary, in the face of the void. And that even after all these years, they'll go out singing.

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  1. At first I thought you wrote a Craig's List ad.

    Then I realized it was only music.

    Wah. Wah.

  2. AG, I thought you were going to write that bp's tears of joy were totally 1992!

    Loved your write up, bp. And I've experienced those tears of joy. I *love* that. Totally, totally, totally worthwhile. Definitely one of life's greatest treasures.

  3. pleasures




  4. I'll bet AG makes UC cry all the time.

  5. Very nice write up, BP.

    There's a lot of bands I listen to for a while, but then stop, not that they get bad, but because they no longer speak to me. A few, though, I've listened to for years. The Mekons sound like that for you.

  6. Only in bed from pleasure, BP. Only in bed...

    You are so 1992.

  7. This post feels like 1992.

    New post. AG bored.

  8. AG never cries.


    Unless there's a chili dog in the room.