Mekons – Maxwell’s (Hoboken, NJ)
There’s really only one thing people have wanted to know about this band, for years now: “How long can they keep this up?”
For this, one of three New York-area 25th-anniversary shows, ringleader Jon Langford conducted a guided tour of Mekons history using imaginary “time glasses” as visual aids, glasses which transmogrified first into “time pants,” then into “time testicles.” (“I’ve lost all contact with them.”) He would no doubt be pleased to provide a rude answer to the question.
But the Mekons do keep it up, when virtually every other act with their punk-era pedigree, working-class industrial town roots, “involuntarily unaligned leftist” political starting point, unapologetically intellectual approach, and tendency toward massive self-abuse unto projectile eruption, has long since dropped beaten and broken in the dust. (Okay. How many were there?)
Having decided to divide the three New York shows into early, middle and recent Mekon eras, the band selected Maxwell’s in Hoboken — original site of a number of their key mid-1980s shows — for the “1985-91” night, the years when roots sounds from both sides of the Atlantic remade the Mekons’ music, including their blind leaps into country.
The opening act had been variously advertised as the Melons, the Nelsons and “A Canadian Mekons Tribute Band,” and turned out to be the Sadies. They played a high-powered, smash-and-scream set of the Leeds band’s songs in a semihomage-inous ’70s punk mode — some from that era, some recast that way.
Then the Mekons took the stage, with Langford, Tom Greenhalgh and Sally Timms fronting a lineup stoked by accordionist Rico Bell (who also took an occasional lead turn) and fiddler Jessica Billey. It was the guitars-plus configuration that powered their comeback roots-rock sound, and it did so again on this night, as they rolled through high spots from 1985’s Fear & Whiskey through 1991’s Curse Of The Mekons.
Lead vocals, as you’d expect, mainly switched off between Bell (“Hard To Be Human”), Greenhalgh (“Chivalry”, “Bastard”) and Timms ( “Wild And Blue”, “Ghost Of American Astronauts”), but the most powerful moments probably came in the voices-in-unison pub-shout moments, on full-tilt rockers such as “Rock And Roll” and “Fantastic Voyage”.
As for the Anglo roots and American country tinge: In retrospect, this charging squeezebox and fiddle-led music, with a strong, singular tendency to marry Cajun and slashing punk, often remained very British, very different from the later Waco Brothers approach. It had much in common with “Celt rock” efforts from the Pogues, or even Richard Thompson — if in an edgier, more gang-based and just plain louder mode.
The Mekons took to country songs for their simple frankness, though they’ve never worried about running over them roughshod as a show of a sort of true adoption and affection. Greenhalgh finally got the words to “Lost Highway” right this night, but Bell’s encore turn on “Sweet Dreams Of You” was so busted and unprepared that that it was semi-recognizable, wondrously inexcusable, and left Timms doubled over on the floor in laughter.
A quarter-century on, what finally sets apart the Mekons is that good-spirited humor and camaraderie, the rebellion against being pinned down, and the endless energy for what they do. It was plain enthusiasm, really, that kept this packed house enthused. It wasn’t nostalgia; it was rock ‘n’ roll.