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Jon Langford, Cowboy Jack Clement Live!

| April 26, 2006

Jon Langford, Cowboy Jack Clement
Old Town School Of Folk Music, Chicago
Sunday, April 23, 2006


For April’s installment of his country music series, Robbie Fulks pulled together two of its most disparate elements: one making his millionth appearance in Chicago, another who had never performed here once.

Both Jon Langford and Cowboy Jack Clement made their names in rock ‘n’ roll. Langford, who is probably mistaken as a Chicagoan by those who’ve never heard him speak, was born in Wales and later formed punk pioneers the Mekons in Leeds, England. Clement was born in Tennessee and immersed in country culture all his life, but cut his teeth as Sam Phillips’ assistant at Sun Studios in Memphis, where country (through Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich) was turned into rock ‘n’ roll. For Clement, he kept in touch with his roots in songwriting (“Miller’s Cave,” “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog”) and guiding the career of Charley Pride. Langford steered the Mekons into alt-country on Fear & Whiskey, and has since done his best to Celtic-ize it in Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and now a solo career.

Clement played first — though don’t dare call it “opening” — spinning his dark-humored country through a booming, Cash-like rumble of a voice and rudimentary but effective guitar work. He took time to lightly push his 2004 album, Guess Things Happen That Way, baring frustrated emotion in the title track, but brandishing his silly side in “Drinking Carrot Juice” and “S-E-R-I-O-U-S-L-Y,” the former of which “led to my second divorce from my first wife.” While a good portion of the set could have passed for stand-up — Southern men tell better jokes — the songs that made Clement successful all have a vulnerability that he wasn’t afraid to explore again Sunday. “Just Someone I Used To Know,” popularlized by Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, sparred with damaged pride in the Cash-like “Miller’s Cave” (a hit for Hank Snow and Bobby Bare), and Charley Pride’s “Take Me Home.”

But if Clement was an artifact of country music past, Langford busied himself blowing up the future with a rollicking roots rock set. Using both his solo album (Gold Brick) and the tracks accompanying a book of paintings (Nashville Radio) as his setlist, he may have looked like a post-modern Anthony Hopkins but he gobbed with the fervor a young punk. Reviving the same, well-oiled band he had at South By Southwest in Austin (guitarist Jon Rice, Pere Ubu bassist Tim Wright, vocalist Sally Timms, drummer Dan Massey, violinist Jean Cook, and pianist Pat Brennan) the evening constantly threatened to be overshadowed by his and Timms’ set ’em up, knock ’em down banter, yet found life when it needed it most. Whether sounding like The Pogues singing sea shanties (“Sailor Pill,” “Lost In America”) or crafting blue-collar pedestals (“Workingman’s Palace,” “Tom Jones Levitation”) it was as cohesive a set someone with his hand in so many pies could assemble.

Other highlights included a cover of Alejandro Escovedo’s “Badlands,” a Waco Brothers nugget (“Walking On Hell’s Roof Looking At The Flowers”), and the down-and-out “Dreams Of Leaving,” but it was some final duets with Clement that sealed the evening. Reprising his “I Guess Things Happen That Way” felt a little lazy — truth be told, Clement appeared to want to get the hell out — but a Clement/Timms duet on Dolly Parton’s “Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You” ironically embraced the past while kissing it goodbye.

— Steve Forstneger

Category: Live Reviews, Weekly

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