Mekons, you Rhett

A rock great lends his support to the Old 97's

When Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller calls from a Chicago recording studio, where the band is recording the follow-up to last year's Hitchhike to Rhome, he cannot contain his enthusiasm. He speaks quickly and a little breathlessly, bursting with the news that labelmate (on the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records) and Windy City resident Jon Langford--revered as the leader of the Mekons, the best American rock and roll band that hails from Leeds, England--is upstairs laying down guest vocals and guitars on two tracks for the next Old 97's disc.

"It's so cool," Miller gushes.
Langford played guitar on the end of "Doreen," and he contributed vocals--well, one word, actually--to a cover of "Over the Cliff," originally written and recorded by Langford for a Bloodshot compilation. That one word is "asshole," which Langford screamed.

Langford, who hung around the studio with the band to have a few drinks once he had recorded his parts, says he was more than happy to accept the band's invitation.

"I went to a gig and they asked me to stick around and listen to the fifth song in the set," he recalls as he sits next to Miller. "I figured it would be a cover of a Mekons song, but it turned out to be 'Over the Cliff,' and it was amazing. I did my part on 'Over the Cliff' in one take, as well. And for 'Doreen,' I played a horrible guitar solo for an hour, till they made me stop. I was like, 'No, wait, give me another try. I can double it up like Thin Lizzy.'"

Langford says he met the Old 97's when his own "noisy country band" the Waco Brothers shared a few bills with the 97's around the Chicago area. At one show, the Waco Brothers were forced to share the Dallas band's equipment, and Langford was impressed with how "helpful and friendly" the Old 97's were.

The pairing of Langford (whether as a Waco Brother or as a Mekon) and the Old 97's couldn't be more appropriate: both share an affinity for country music but come at it from an affectionate distance. Rhett Miller started out as a teen-folkie singing in a vaguely affected British accent, then after briefly flirting with power-pop (as Rhett's Exploding and Sleepy Heroes), he and longtime partner Murry Hammond pledged themselves to the gospel of Uncle Tupelo and were born-again country-pop-folkies. (Which is much, much more appealing than that description would seem.)

The Mekons began as part of the British punk-art school scene of the late '70s in Leeds that also spawned Gang of Four and Delta 5. But by the time they recorded Fear and Whiskey in 1986 and The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll three years later, they had become a damned special (if not damned bizarre) country-rock band. They covered Gram Parsons and Merle Haggard but sounded like the Clash, they brought politics into the honky-tonk, and they drank like Bob Wills with a new liver. Sally Timms and Langford were the Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons of the '80s, and to say the Mekons were underrated would be implying they were regarded at all outside a small cadre of critics and fans. (When the band performed at 21st Amendment in Deep Ellum last year, they drew maybe 50 people--which Langford hardly noticed, he says, because "we were all lit.")

As critic Greil Marcus pointed out in his terrific 1986 essay on the band, titled "The Return of King Arthur," the Mekons were England's answer to The Band--a group of non-native Americans who took all that was good and forgotten about American music and brought it all back home. "The Mekons are a lot like The Band," Marcus wrote, "in their seamless melding of rock 'n' roll, old country music, and ancient British folk music." And like The Band (or fellow Canadians like Neil Young or Cowboy Junkies), the Mekons were always exiles in their own homeland--enamored of American music, unwilling to speak their own tongue.

Langford--who will be going to England in three weeks to begin recording the next Mekons CD, to be accompanied by the long-awaited band-written detective novel and a catalog of artwork done by members of the Mekons--says he finally moved to America because of his love for American music. He recently released a disc of Johnny Cash covers on a small Chicago label, and the Waco Brothers have just recorded their full-length country debut for Bloodshot.

"The Waco Brothers started doin' covers like George Jones and Merle Haggard," he says. "That's the attraction for me to America--the music. Of course, there's also a lot of detractions, but country music is the greatest. If you're going to play in a bar and drink beer, that seems the obvious thing to play. It turned into a bit of an obsession.

"People come around my house and say, 'Could you turn that country music off?' I don't know. I guess I've just sort of let it all come in, and I don't really use any sense of taste--I love it all. I just buy old country samplers and laugh at the shitty songs and sing along with the good ones."

Riders on the Range
Modern-day western swing is a misunderstood and fragile thing--go too far in one direction and it's almost like light jazz, go too far the other way and it approaches kitschy nostalgia; and so the line separating Bob Wills and George Strait and Cowboys and Indians is crooked and splintered, the intentions not always so obvious. But the second installment in Texas Monthly's Honed on the Range CD series, this one rounding up the best of the modern-day western swing practitioners, sets the record straight: it's the nature of this music that even the purists (including Leon Rausch and Johnny Gimble) sound no more "authentic" than the Ace in the Hole Band or jazzer Herb Ellis, so jumbled are the current influences.

The disc advertises these folks as "contemporary Texas swing" artists, and it gathers up the obvious suspects (Asleep at the Wheel with Willie Nelson, Johnny Gimble), the lesser-known heroes (Alvin Crow, Don Walser), plus several of Dallas' own (Cowboys and Indians, Tommy Morrell and the Time Warp Tophands, and Dave Alexander and the Legends of Western Swing). If the disc doesn't burst at the seams like the best of Bob Wills or Milton Brown, if the music now seems more pop than traditional, that's because these artists work outside of the context: Maryanne Price's "Oilwell, Texas" sounds like an outtake from a Yankee's revue, the late San Antonio tenor saxophonist Clifford Scott is more bop than swing, and the Ace in the Hole Band sounds incomplete without Strait. And maybe it's the homer in me, but it's ironic that Cowboys and Indians--the youngest of the bunch--come closest to capturing the raw spirit of Wills and Brown.

Honed on the Range, Volume 2 is available by calling (800) 926-7657.

Scene, heard
When Seal comes to Starplex on July 7, he'll bring rubberbullet drummer Earl Harvin with him; Harvin, as reported here a month ago, joined the soul singer's touring band after MC 900 Ft Jesus' recent European tour ended, and appeared with Seal on "The Late Show with David Letterman" three weeks ago. With Harvin on the road so much lately, rubberbullet has been put on hold and the band members have been off doing their own things--for instance, guitarist Aaron Berlin has been playing with the Buck Pets--waiting for his return. Mark Elliott of Leaning House Records also is planning to release the terrific and long-awaited recording debut of Harvin's jazz band, simply titled The Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet...

The long-defunct VVV Records label was once the imprint of choice for Dallas' new-wave bands, and it still ranks among the best of Dallas' indie labels, along with Star Talent of the late '40s and Direct Hit (home to Bedhead and Dooms U.K., among others). To celebrate its legacy, and in the spirit of the Live at the Hot Klub album, on August 12 at the Major Theatre there will be a reunion of the bands once on VVV--including NCM (fronted by current Enabler Neil Caldwell, who owned the store and label till two years ago), The Telefones (and The Teenage Queers, with Bobby Soxx as guest vocalist), Quad Pi (including Lithium X-Mas's Mark Ridlin), The Ralphs (actually The Rockin' Honky-Tonk Fools doing Ralphs material), The Devices (which would later become Loco Gringos), Fort Worth Cats, and The Ejectors. More details to follow...

Slowpoke, which released a terrific album (Mad Chen) last summer and then played maybe three shows to promote it, is slowly emerging from the black hole into which it disappeared. Frontman David Gibson retreated to work on his master's degree and medical internship, and the band has undergone a substantial personnel change: drummer Travis Williams just quit to join the experimental Denton band Muzinga Phaser, and Corbett Guest (formerly of Goth band Motherwell) has signed on as the new bass player. Next week, Grass Records will finally release the long-awaited split seven-inch with the Toadies (who cover the Talking Heads' "Not in Love"), and in September, Slowpoke will go into the studio with producer Chris Nagle (Joy Division, Wedding Present, New Order) to record the follow-up to Mad Chen. The album will be recorded in New York City at the studio owned by former Bongwater-Shimmy Disc mastermind Kramer. "But before we record," Gibson says, "we'll probably start playing live. When? I don't really know yet..."

This ain't the classifieds, but Earl--the band that rocks in the middle ground separating Morrissey and the Toadies--is looking for a drummer. Eric Spruce moved to Minnesota a month ago, and the band has been using a temp since then. Interested parties should contact John Branson at 381-3762...

The Grown-Ups, Denton's keepers of the flickering ska flame, are currently recording at Inside Tracks Studios in Hell's Lobby, with Brave Combo's Carl Finch producing. One track from the sessions, a cover of "Rampage," will be included on Moon Records' Spawn of Skamageddon compilation due in stores August 1. The band's next local appearance is in Denton on July 15, at the Good/Bad Art Collective.

Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at DalObserv@aol.com.

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