NEW YORK -- When the Mekons are on, they're great. When they're not, well, they're even better.
This past Friday and Saturday the Mekons played to packed houses at New York's small, brick-walled Mercury Lounge. It was the group's first New York-area performances in well over a year, and it offered the faithful a welcome burst of brackish Mekons air.
But Saturday night brought a very different Mekons than had shown up the night before.
The first show was perhaps the more expressly "musical" of the two,
relatively speaking. The focus was on the songs and the set moved along
briskly, especially considering the usual Mekons' penchant for lengthy
discourses on matters historical or sexual or both. It was only the second day of this mini-tour, and the band seemed content to leave the chatting aside, except for the occasional "boy are we old" comments, and concentrated instead on raising the roof and demonstrating that not only do the Mekons rock'n'roll, the Mekons are rock'n'roll.
There is a power, after all, in hearing a room full of people chant "Destroy your safe and happy homes before it is too late" with only a trace of irony.
The songs were culled from a number of periods in the group's 20-year
run; one from Rock'n'Roll, several from Original Sin, a bunch from last year's re-released Edge of the World, and a song or two from their recent collaboration with writer Kathy Acker, Pussy, Queen of the Pirates.
All Mekons were in fine fettle. Guitarist Jon Langford played, by his own admission, as if he could do no wrong, giving one of those virtuoso performances that seem to make the guitar player grow in stature until it looks as if he is strapped to a ukulele. Tom Greenhalgh and Sally Timms sang and shouted beautifully, and led all present in a mid-set, drum-machine-fueled arm dance that I believe was a paean to the sense of security we all feel knowing we have the Bomb. The rhythm section was brilliant, aided immeasurably by the accordionist and occasional harpist Rico Bell.
The music was as mysterious and inexplicable as any I've heard, the songs seeming to swirl around the stage, each band member adding something new and beautiful before the songs spilled gracefully like mercury into the crowd.
Saturday night was a different story entirely. Same set, different telling.
The group seemed as though they had had enough of being on the road, this
on night three of the tour. There was much more chatting among themselves, and with the audience, particularly one Frenchman who was singled out for a bit of ribbing. Timms did, of course, amiably suggest that all repeat customers (judging from the audience reaction, a solid portion of Saturday's crowd) go home.
Some of the conversational segments of the evening -- impossible to recreate with any accuracy-- went on so long, and with so little apparent aggravation on the audience's part, that the Mekons demanded recompense.
Soon, crumpled dollar bills, socks, shoes and bras were flying toward the stage. Timms happily collected the group's take ($18) and stowed it, for safe keeping, in the bra, which she took to wearing on the outside of her Mrs. Pink dress. So rewarded, the Mekons then nearly demolished all memory of the preceding evening. Not so awesome as the night before (I had already heard what they can do), but faster and messier and harder.
More arm waving and jumping, less rapt head bobbing (in the audience, that is). The extra songs were extemporaneous: "Money," during the collection phase of the evening; "Come On Have a Go (If You Think You're Hard Enough)," created, it seemed, on the spot, during the more confrontational of the interactive portions of the evening, and, then again, as a final number -- a more complete and more ferocious rendition.
One of the Mekons led the band off the stage by diving into the waiting arms of the audience, followed by the rest of the group, including Greenhalgh, who used the opportunity to get to leave the stage and get to the back of the room over, rather than through, the crowd.
Timms couldn't quite manage the final encore, having retired to the bar at
the front of the Lounge to drink with friends (it seemed) as the show
We passed her there, in the front window, on our way out. She was waiting in the bar.
Where were you?
[Mon., Sept. 22, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]