The Lesson of the Mekons

The concert heaves into gear when the band climbs onto the stage and kicks into “Heaven and Back”. It’s a slightly stolid version, without the lurch of the original. The drummer seems primed to play stadium rock; the band isn’t always quite organized, though the violinist is on the money. It’s not the Mekons, it turns out, but a tribute band called the Wekons. Looking little more than a decade shy of the age of their idols, they know the songs well enough to play them with some abandon, if not quite to equal effect. But, hey, they’re up there banging out the hits and we’re not. We’re cheering them on because we too love and idolize the Mekons in all their glorious, chaotic, rabble rousing.

When the real band hits the stage, they perform some of the same songs as the earlier tribute band. Doing so doesn’t seem rude, it seems evocative of the connection between the two. Of course, Memphis, Egypt rocks us to our core; the earlier version was a more cerebral and less visceral joy, like a family singing familiar Christmas carols.

The band, as usual, is all over the stage. Jon Langford jumps like an older, heavier man who really doesn’t care that he is older and heavier. God bless him. Sally Timms hangs onto the mic stand like she’s blind drunk, though she is, as she does, plotting her next move, her next snarky comment. How can someone sing as though it’s a snarl, and yet the sound is so pretty, seductive and even plaintive. How can you be sarcastic and utterly honest at the same time? Her sound is tremulous and earthy; how is that possible? The human voice is complex, of course, but it’s more that we are such sensate creatures that we can hear these things in all voices, if we listen. Still, some voices say more than others.

I’m hanging close to the stage side with Rico Bell – his accordion is so tuned into Susie Honeyman’s violin that they are making the glorious chords together. Lu Edmonds’ saz does the same at times as well, though oftentimes he’s the counterpoint to Jon or Tom’s guitar wailing. Steve Goulding drums like a machine with a heart; Dave Trumfio is as steadfast. Tom Greenhalgh always seems such a crucial but separate piece, something apart from Jon’s rock thrashing. His fragile, lost voice so different from Sally’s lusty countrified plaints and Jon’s gritty growls.

The songs end; the band turns to leave, the encore ended. Jon blocks Sally’s way, saying, no, no, we’re not done. Sally looks at him with well-practiced annoyance. “Get off, Jon, go!”, she shouts. Jon leans into the microphone and says, “no, Sally, we’re not going yet, not till I hear my friend Tom Greenhalgh sing The Prince of Darkness.” The crowd cheers and Sally relents though not without one more glance of irritation at her occasional antagonist.

Tom sings that great (for us long-time fans) old chestnut. He’s amazing. No crooner; more a warbler, so it’s all the more wonderful that he sings so well. It has the feel of a struggle. These eight musicians so often seeming to be at odds, going different directions, wanting to do songs the other doesn’t, arguing about tempos, or so it has seemed throughout their long forty-year careers.

But you watch the stage and at all times one or two of the musicians are looking to another, in perfect sync. Partnering and then coupling with some other. The band’s dynamic swings back and forth, a crest of energy, honesty and richness, like you’ve just been at the greatest reunion. I imagined that singalongs or jams would be like this, but they rarely were. Only occasionally can I remember such a moment – one late night songfest at Adelsheim Winery, happily drunk, a campfire and a bunch of guitars, with some of us just banging out the rhythm. That was something. But this was a professional band at the height of their powers, still playing like kids playing like they can at least remember what it was like to be kids.