Waco Brothers And Blue Ribbon Revival At Bar None 1/22/2011
“History is written by the winner / This is a loser’s song.” So sang Waco Brothers leader Jon Langford last night at Springfield’s Bar None. The song was entitled “Walking on Hell’s Roof Looking at the Flowers,” from the band’s most recent CD, Electric Waco Chair, and at last night’s show it provided a rare (and brief) moment of reflection from within a churning maelstrom of hell-bent, high energy, punk-fueled country. Or should that be country-fueled punk? The debate rages on…
Regardless, the evening began on a decidedly more genteel note, with a set by the affable Blue Ribbon Revival (as in PBR, duh), in what was -- according to the band’s Facebook page, anyway -- their “national debut.” For a first gig, they comported themselves admirably, with spot-on harmonies, well-chosen songs and ripping solos by lead guitarist Michael Sullivan. While versions of sturdy tunes by honky-tonk standard-bearers like Robbie Fulks, George Jones and Hank Williams the First stopped short of setting the proverbial woods on fire, it will be interesting to watch this talented new band as it develops.
The Waco Brothers certainly exist on the opposite end of the experience spectrum, with a pedigree stretching back to late ‘70s Great Britain, where Langford founded legendary punk outfit The Mekons with some fellow art students at the University of Leeds. While early Mekons records were rough, ragged, artsy punk (their first album was recorded with equipment on loan from influential left-wing funk-punk agitprop outfit Gang of 4) by the mid-‘80s the band had begun a flirtation with American country influences, even including quasi-sincere versions of songs by the likes of Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons on the albums Fear & Whiskey and The Mekons Honky Tonkin’. In 1991, Langford relocated to Chicago, where he continues to lead the ever-mutating Mekons; the Waco Brothers were formed in 1995 as an outlet for his ongoing C&W fascination.
Sixteen years later, this ostensible side project is operating at near-overdrive levels of energy. Last night’s Bar None show found the quartet playing a show that brimmed with humor, showmanship and passion, with the 53-year-old Langford displaying an effortless intensity that would be the envy of rockers half his age. While the early part of the set consisted of mostly original material, the band really hit its stride in the wee hours, with a giddy, eclectic selection of covers, encompassing everything from Neil Young’s seering, obscure “Revolution Blues” (“I keep ‘em hoppin’ ‘till my ammunition’s gone”),a gonzo reimagining of The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly,” and a straightforward take on T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” all the way to an amphetamine-charged rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and a version of “I Fought The Law” that owed way more to Joe Strummer than to Bobby Fuller.
The not-exactly-capacity crowd at Bar None was appreciative of all this, if a bit subdued, prompting Langford to comment, in his laconic Northern England drawl, “I love this venue, it’s great the way everybody’s dancing all the way in the back there, or else standing awkwardly off to the side.” This is Langford’s second show in Springfield in less than a year (his band Skull Orchard played at the Hoogland this past April) and with the Mekons set to tour the US later in 2011, it’s possible he could make it three. Springfield’s discerning (if perhaps somewhat stiff) rock connoisseurs should only be so lucky.
Scott Faingold first contributed to IT in 1987. He is the author of the novel Kennel Cough, founder of the band Backwards Day and currently seeking his Master's degree at UIS. Please send any suggestions for artistic and / or entertaining events that Scott might like to cover to firstname.lastname@example.org