Jon Langford & His Sadies (Dean Waco / Jon Langford's Skull Orchard / The Good Family)
The Horseshoe Tavern. Friday, April 15, 2011.
Another unseasonably cold Friday night where it was too unpleasant out to wander much — although I was actually of a mind to get down to the 'Shoe early anyway. On a night with four inter-related bands playing, the first group out might not have registered with casual fans, but making some inferences I was guessing this was one I'd want to get out early for.
At various Sadies shows I'd seen all the component parts of The Good Family on the stage at one time or another, but it was welcoming to see "the kinfolk" up front. This incarnation basically offered the Sadies as the backing band — like taking the guest parts in a Sadies set where the relatives come out to sing and foregrounding that.
Dallas Good was the first one out on to a stage crowded with gear. Still wearing a cast after suffering a nasty broken leg while on tour, he needed a little extra time to settle into a stool and prop up his foot on a chair beside his monitor. Even though his pedals were now sitting on top of his amp, the injury didn't seem to to slow his fingers down.
Once the rest of the band were on stage, things burst right into a wonderful old-timey hoedown, leading off with "I'll Fly Away" (powered by paterfamilias Bruce Good's autoharp) and followed with Travis Good singing bluegrass standard "Ole Slew Foot".
There were a couple songs from The Sadies' catalog, including a slowed-down and sad "Sunset to Dawn", and also Margaret Good (Dallas and Travis' mom) singing "Eastern Winds".1 The set would be split between songs that you might expect to hear during a Sadies show with some others that Bruce and Margaret brought to the table. In the latter category was Gordon Lightfoot's "Redwood Hill" — Bruce casually mentioning he was hanging out with Lightfoot in California when the song was written.
And adding more family, cousin Spencer — son of Larry Good, immortalized in the song "Uncle Larry's Breakdown" — joined for a double-banjo powered number. The set offered an efficient baker's dozen songs in forty minutes, closing with a turbocharged "Stay a Little Longer" — and an excellent time throughout. Very much a warm, family feeling.
Listen to a song from this set here.
Although it's easy to just add "of the Mekons" to identify Jon Langford, he's a guy with many fingers in many pies, having put out plenty albums as a member of the Waco Brothers and in several semi-solo formations. And here, he was performing as his own opening act, bringing an entirely separate band to do it. Jon Langford's Skull Orchard take their name from Langford's fabulous 1998 album2, and this set would include some of its songs (including "Trapdoor" and "I Am the Law") alongside more from the from the new-ish Old Devils.
This unit featured a hard-driving rootsy sound, admirably rangy and scrappy, not so different from Langford's other "solo" incarnations. The rhythm section looked like they could have been plucked from a cadre of weekend blooze jammers — although on closer inspection I realized it was Al Doughty (previously of Jesus Jones) on the bass.
And as always, Langford was a bon vivant on stage, with plenty of value-added banter: "this song's called 'Self Portrait'. It's about being an artist and how all artists are complete wankers." Even better was introducing a song as being about the England World Cup Team: after a cheer from the floor, Langford off-handedly said, "you haven't heard it yet, mate," launching into "Getting Used To Uselessness".
The heart of the set included a pair of covers, both tributes to Langford's contemporaries. Tawny Newsome handled the vox for Viv Albertine's "I Don't Believe In Love", but that was overshadowed by a stellar power-pop version of The Go-Betweens' "Streets of Your Town", one of the much-missed Grant McLennan's most indelible gems. And after a couple more originals, the set closed with one more sorta-cover, with the band essaying The Three Johns' "Death of the European", complete with a bracing postpunk guitar line.
I'd originally posted a cover from this set here, and I've now supplemented it with an original here — the latter also includes a link to the Live Music Archive, where you can stream or download this entire set.
The Skull Orchard rhythm section would stay on for the next set, comprising two-thirds of a sorta roots-y power trio behind Dean Schlabowske, who operates under the nom de rock Dean Waco. Schlabowske spent some of the set flirting with band names — settling, for this night, on "Atom Banana" — though he could as easily have just been billed as Dollar Store, his side-project away from the Waco Brothers.
The Dollar Store material would provide the backbone for the set, though they'd also touch on his Deano Meats the Purveyors album3 and leave room for several covers, including "I Wanna Destroy You" à la Uncle Tupelo and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry".
There was a good punch to the music, even if Schlabowske's vocals were a little meat-and-potatoes. But there was no doubt that he can tear off a mean guitar solo. That was enough of a framework for an interesting set, and being able to bring up some friends to the stage kept things interesting. Travis Good added some guitar to "In The Gravel Yard", and Tracy Dear of the Waco Brothers came out to sing "Teenage Kicks". Jon Langford was right up front taking this in, and when Schlabowske broke a string, he jumped up to change it for him. Langford would return for the finale, a ripping run through Status Quo's "Paper Plane". Good Friday-night stuff that worked well for a crowd that was starting to get well-liquored up.
Listen to a track from this set here.
And it was a pretty full room of slightly-lurching enthusiasts when pretty much all of the night's previous elements recombined for the headlining set by Jon Langford & His Sadies. The only document of their longstanding live collaboration is 2003's joint Mayors of the Moon album, and several selections from that would make their way into the setlist — the choppy honkytonk rhythms of "American Pageant" led off the set. But there were plenty of interesting departures from that, including "Joshua Gone Barbados"4 and some Australian C&W with a cover of Roger Knox's "Streets of Tamworth". All of it was delivered with the bracing combination of the Sadies' quicksilver chops and Langford's easy, casual charm.
Langford managed to enlist the crowd in some ragged group vocals on "Are You an Entertainer?" that came off far better than one might have expected, and the main set was capped off with an extended take of the Skull Orchard track "Sentimental Marching Song" with Tawny Newsome returning to sing.
After that, the encore was so inevitable that the band never even left the stage, just hanging around to close out the night with a few covers, including the John Anderson-via-Mekons "Wild and Blue" and "Milk Cow Blues", Tracy Dear singing lead on the latter. The ne plus ultra was a couple more also-sorta-covers, with the band tackling the Mekons classics "Where Were You?" and "Memphis, Egypt". the latter is, of course, one of the all-time ever greatest rock'n'roll songs, so mark that down as a bit of an out-of-body experience to cap off a fairly fabulous night.
1 I always thought of this as a Sadies song, though it turns out it was originally written by Andrew Queen, Travis and Dallas' uncle.
2 A sort of loosely conceptual tribute to Langford's native Wales, it was a bit sad to be seeing this combo sans The Burlington Welsh Male Choir, who were slated for Saturday's show in Langford's two-night Horseshoe stand. Although it might sound a bit strange, having the choir involved works so much better than the idea might sound — and in fact Langford's association with them has culminated in Skull Orchard Revisited, a re-recording of the out-of-print album with beefed-up choral arrangements.
4 Langford recorded this one on Songs of False Hope and High Values, his '03 collaborative EP with fellow Mekon Sally Timms. The set also included "Horses", written by Timms for Bonnie "Prince" Billy. It was nice to have Timms' indirect presence through those songs, as well as the rest of the Mekons with the covers in the finale — but it is enough to make a body wonder why we haven't had a T.O. visit from the Mekons in so damn long.