Steve Ter­rell goes to Mekonville

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Steve Ter­rell

When The Mekons first emerged as a young, brash, rag­tag, loose-knit art-school punk-rock band in Leeds, U.K. in those golden late ’70s, I bet no­body who heard or saw them — or even the band mem­bers them­selves — ever en­vi­sioned that in 2017, hun­dreds of peo­ple from many na­tions would an­swer the band’s call to “de­stroy your safe and happy lives be­fore it is too late,” and gather in ru­ral Eng­land to cel­e­brate the band’s 40th an­niver­sary at a three-day mu­sic fes­ti­val. But that’s what just hap­pened. And I was there. Where were you?

The Mekonville fes­ti­val took place from July 28 to July 30 in Suf­folk, north­east of Lon­don. The bill fea­tured The Mekons — both the cur­rent mu­si­cians (a lineup that has been rel­a­tively sta­ble since the mid-1980s) and the orig­i­nal 1977 crew — as well as var­i­ous bands in­volv­ing Mekons mem­bers ( Jon Lang­ford’s Men of Gwent was a high­light), solo spots by Mekons Sally Timms and Rico Bell, as well as friends, fam­ily (4DGs, which is made up of Mekons singer Tom Green­halgh’s young chil­dren), and as­sorted al­lies of the group.

About 90 per­cent of the peo­ple I know gave me blank stares when I told them I was go­ing to Eng­land for a Mekons fes­ti­val. That’s not sur­pris­ing. The group has never had a re­ally big hit. They haven’t even been on a ma­jor la­bel in a quar­ter cen­tury or so. How many bands these days have eight mem­bers — in­clud­ing three or four lead singers — and fea­ture fid­dle, ac­cor­dion, and oud? The Mekons sprang out of the punk world, but they went on to in­cor­po­rate el­e­ments of folk and coun­try mu­sic, reg­gae, and other sounds. Whether they are play­ing an orig­i­nal rocker, some mu­tated sea shanty, or a Hank Wil­liams song, The Mekons don’t sound much like any­one else.

The 2017 Mekons played a set on each day of the fes­ti­val. Their mag­i­cal Friday night per­for­mance spot­lighted the band’s (rel­a­tively) best-known songs like “I Have Been to Heaven and Back,” “Beaten and Bro­ken,” “Mil­lion­aire” and, of course, their hard-driv­ing battle cry, “Mem­phis, Egypt” (“The bat­tles we fought were long and hard, just not to be con­sumed by rock ’n’ roll”), which they played dur­ing all three of their sets. The band did a cou­ple of newer songs the first night, in­clud­ing “Si­mone on the Beach,” sung by Timms, one of the more rock­ing songs from their lat­est al­bum Ex­is­ten­tial­ism (for my money, the best Mekons al­bum of this cen­tury so far), along with their lat­est sin­gle, a slow, dreamy “How Many Stars Are Out Tonight,” which fea­tures Green­halgh on lead vo­cals and his kids singing backup on the cho­ruses. This set could have been marred by the sound prob­lems, as the amps for some of the in­stru­ments went off sev­eral times. But the band just made a joke of it and plowed through like pros.

Satur­day af­ter­noon’s per­for­mance, which took place on the fes­ti­val’s smaller sec­ond stage, had been billed as an acous­tic set, but wasn’t any­thing close to an “un­plugged” show. As one band friend ex­plained: “They just used smaller amps.” With the ex­cep­tion of “Mem­phis, Egypt” there were no re­peats from Friday’s set list. The best songs here in­cluded Timms’ sig­na­ture “Ghosts of Amer­i­can As­tro­nauts,” “The Olde Trip to Jerusalem” — one of the group’s most in­tense lat­ter-day rock­ers — “Some­times I Feel Like Fletcher Chris­tian,” per­formed in a mari­achi-in­flu­enced style, and the rowdy “Big Zom­bie,” in which Bell’s ac­cor­dion drives the al­most Ca­jun-sound­ing tune. But the high­est-en­ergy num­ber was a take-no-pris­on­ers ver­sion of “Where Were You?” in which The Mekons were joined on stage by their road man­ager, em­cee, and some­times singer Mitch Flacko.

Later that night on the main stage there was a punk set by the orig­i­nal 1977 Mekons. Lang­ford (switch­ing from gui­tar to drums) and Green­halgh were joined by singers Andy Cor­ri­gan and Mark “Chalkie” White, gui­tarist Kevin Lycett, and bassist Ros Allen (who had her back turned away from the au­di­ence dur­ing vir­tu­ally the whole show). I knew this was go­ing to be good, but I had no idea that these guys would be this good. They ripped through their early songs such as “32 Weeks,” “Never Been in a Riot,” and, once again, “Where Were You,” this time with lead vo­cals by Chalkie and Lang­ford pound­ing his drums as if he were au­di­tion­ing for a spot with The Sur­faris.

The grand fi­nale Sun­day af­ter­noon started off with the cur­rent Mekons, but even­tu­ally they were joined on stage by the orig­i­nal Mekons and later by Bon­nie Prince Billy, aka Will Old­ham (a long­time devo­tee, who on Satur­day night per­formed a solo set of songs writ­ten or in­spired by the Mekons) for songs in­clud­ing “Curse” and “Beaten and Bro­ken.” Fol­low­ing a cou­ple of coun­try cov­ers (“Help Me Make It Through the Night” and Hank Wil­liams’ “Lost High­way”), Mekons past and present as well as other mu­si­cians who had per­formed at the fes­ti­val took to the stage for one fi­nal rous­ing, messy, ridicu­lous “Where Were You?” with Mitch and Chalkie shar­ing lead vo­cals.

As a wise critic wrote just a cou­ple of years ago, “It never fails to frus­trate me that no mat­ter how I’ve tried to spread the word about this won­der­ful mu­si­cal col­lec­tive of vi­sion­ar­ies, rebels, and odd­balls — and how writ­ers far more tal­ented and in­flu­en­tial than I have tried to do the same — The Mekons’ au­di­ence never seems to rise be­yond the level of small-but-ra­bid cult.” Per­son­ally, I guz­zled the spiked Kool-Aid served up by The Mekons years ago. And I took an even big­ger gulp at the fes­ti­val in Suf­folk. I’m proud to be a mem­ber of this crazed con­gre­ga­tion. And it was a true joy to be a cit­i­zen of Mekonville.

How many bands these days have eight mem­bers —in­clud­ing three or four lead singers — and fea­ture fid­dle, ac­cor­dion, and oud? The Mekons sprang out of the punk world, but they went on to in­cor­po­rate el­e­ments of folk and coun­try mu­sic, reg­gae, and other sounds.

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