March 15, 2008
Note: This column, obviously, was written before South by Southwest. The photos are from the Waco Brothers' Friday show at the Bloodshot Records party.
If you are reading this review of the new Waco Brothers live album on Friday, March 14, consider this — this very evening, I’ll be seeing the Wacos live at the annual Bloodshot Records party at the Yard Dog gallery in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest music festival. And if you’re reading this on Saturday, this very night I’ll probably be catching the Wacos live at their showcase at some joint called Red Eyed Fly.
So while you’re reading about this album, I’ll be living it. Cosmic, no?
Unfortunately, Austin is about as close to Santa Fe as these founding fathers of “insurgent country” ever get. They rarely play very far from their home base in Chicago. So, unless you travel, this album — Waco Express: Live and Kickin’ at Schuba’s Tavern, Chicago — probably will be as close to the live Wacos experience as you’ll ever get.
While I’ve liked all the band’s studio albums, and loved some of them, there’s nothing like one of the group’s live shows. (Jeepers, I sound like a dang Deadhead.) Waco Express captures much of the band’s crazy energy and provides a sampling of leader Jon Langford’s wicked stage banter.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Wacos — at SXSW on a cramped little stage in some crowded little joint in 1996. The band romped through tunes from its first album, including the hopped-up labor rouser “Plenty Tuff and Union Made,” and super-charged covers of Johnny Cash and Buck Owens songs. Most of the musicians liked to jump around as they played, and the stage was so small that they kept bumping into each other. It was like a honky-tonk mosh pit. At one point, I thought bass player Alan Doughty was going to get in a fist fight with manic mandolin player Tracy Dear. And I was just waiting until someone went crashing into the steel guitar of Mark Durante, who, because of the sedentary nature of his instrument, didn’t get to hop around like the others. Somehow he escaped such a calamity, though there were several close moments.
I’ve been to lots of Waco shows since then and have come to expect a similar level of madness.
Who are these guys?
The Waco Brothers started out in the mid-’90s (soon after the tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound), basically as one of Langford’s side projects. Langford, a founding member and frontman of venerated British punk band/collective The Mekons, had relocated to Chicago, as did fellow Mekons Sally Timms and Steve Goulding — who serves as the Wacos’ drummer.
Though Langford is known to form bands at the drop of a hat (The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Skull Orchard, Jon Langford’s Hillbilly Lovechild), the mixed Brit/Yank Wacos took on a demented life of its own.
Guitarist Dean Schlabowske (who last year opened a wine shop in Chicago) and Dear (“the greatest living Englishman,” as Langford always calls him) also sing in the group. Durante made his vocal debut on the Wacos’ 2005 album, Freedom & Weep.
The Waco Brothers became the flagship band of Bloodshot Records, an influential independent Chicago label. While other Bloodshot acts like Neko Case, Robbie Fulks, and Alejandro Escovedo have gone on to other labels, the Wacos have stood by the company, mangy but loyal mutts that they are.
In addition to all the rowdy fun, irreverent laffs, and excellent steel playing by Durante, Waco Express is a showcase of the best Waco Brothers songs. All are originals, save the crunching cover of Neil Young’s Manson family ode, “Revolution Blues.” The album includes songs from all seven Waco Brothers studio records and, wisely, leans heavily on the first two albums, To the Last Dead Cowboy and — my personal favorite — Cowboy in Flames.
“Plenty Tuff,” the first Wacos tune I ever loved, is here, as are the anthemic “Cowboy in Flames,” “Death of Country Music” (“We spill our blood on the ashes of the bones of the Jones and the Cashes/Skulls in false eyelashes/ghost riders in the sky” ), “Do What I Say,” “Harm’s Way” and “Hell’s Roof” (“History is written by the winners/This is a loser’s song”).
There are also the excellent but overlooked Waco tunes like “Blink of an Eye,” which has a hint of a Slavic influence that makes me fantasize about Gogol Bordello covering it, and Dear’s “Too Sweet to Die” — “Up, up up goes love/Down down down goes hate,” sounds like a positive little message, until you realize it’s a reference to murderous Robert Mitchum’s knuckle tattoos in The Night of the Hunter.
My two favorite Schlabowske songs are here. “Nothing at All,” which can be seen as containing an urgent political dispatch in this age of paranoia. (“What if our history means nothing at all? ... It means nothing, nothing at all.”)
Then there’s the bluesy tale of debauchery, “Red Brick Wall,” which contains a special message for fans like me who know the Waco Brothers mainly through their SXSW performances:
“On the day of his death I built JFK a shrine/Well, I know just how he felt/I get murdered in Texas every time.”I can’t wait for this year’s murdering.