“Time Changes Everything: Bob Wills Night” – Lounge Ax (Chicago, IL)
This show featured not only the songs of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, but also an exhibit of Jon Langford’s paintings and prints of Wills. Langford, a multi-talented artist and member of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers, assembled an outstanding cast of bandmates and friends for this incarnation of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. The Wacos’ Steve Goulding (drums) and Mark Durante (steel guitar) were joined by Tom Ray of the Bottle Rockets (standup bass), Poi Dog Pondering’s Max Crawford (piano, trumpet) and Paul Mertens (clarinet, saxophone), and the Insiders’ John Rice (guitar, fiddle).
Although Langford (who played lead guitar) dubbed the lineup “The Thin Lizzy of Western Swing,” the performances were more reverential than that moniker suggests. The goal of the performance, however, was not to re-create the Playboys’ music note-for-note so much as it was to pay homage to Wills’s incredible musical imagination.
The opener was “Steel Guitar Rag”, with Durante delivering a nice solo on the title instrument. Chris Mills, who had been the warm-up act, was the first of many guest vocalists, lending his pipes to the 1942 hit “Home in San Antone”. The band excelled on the faster numbers, such as “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “Panhandle Rag”. The latter featured a tasteful fiddle solo from Rice, who also added some Bakersfield-style guitar to the festivities.
Since the Mekons are a legendarily collaborative unit, Langford probably enjoyed his role as commander of the Cosmonauts. Just as Wills would cue his musicians for their solos, so did Langford. He also emulated Wills’s habit of yelping “Ah haa!” when he was pleased with a soloist. As the emcee, Langford was a master showman, ribbing his peers, providing hilarious commentary on the recent British elections, and offering a mini-history lesson on Wills.
The concert was punctuated with a few bizarre moments. When Mekons vocalist Sally Timms took the stage, she inexplicably queried the crowd about the Japanese word for “monkey” before singing a ragged but spirited “Right or Wrong”. The Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks joined the band for a strong version of Fred Rose’s “Roly-Poly”, and Langford introduced the bearded singer by saying, “Captain Ahab will now wrestle the white whale. I will play the part of the white whale, as usual.”
“Brain Cloudy Blues”, with guest vocalist Dean Schlabowske of the Wacos, had many couples two-stepping, a rare sight at the indie-rock mecca Lounge Ax. Langford enthusiastically sang lead on “Stay a Little Longer”, a staple of Willie Nelson’s shows in the 1970s and ’80s.
The band really hit its stride at the end of the set. Robbie Fulks’ treatment of “Across The Alley From The Alamo” succeeded because of his obvious familiarity with the song as well as his terrific voice. The Cosmonauts then delivered a scorching version of “New San Antonio Rose” that accented the “swing” in western swing. Goulding, who also plays drums with the Mekons and Poi Dog Pondering in addition to the Wacos, demonstrated his remarkable versatility on this number. The set ended with Jane Baxter-Miller crooning the standard “Faded Love”.
The crowd cheered for more, and since Langford had run out of Texas Playboys material, the rest of the Waco Brothers joined him onstage for smokin’ covers of songs by Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Buck Owens, Merle Travis and Hank Williams. Through his musicianship and his artwork, Langford has educated many fans about the history of country music. Like Merle Haggard and Asleep at the Wheel (who have each recorded Wills tribute albums), Langford wants to ensure that contemporary audiences fully appreciate the brilliance of The King of Western Swing.