LOS ANGELES Alt-country fans who anticipated high twang content at Mekons members Jon Langford and Sally Timms' show Tuesday night at Vynyl were in for a surprise.
As Langford joked from the stage, "We're cashing in on the folky/rocky boom."
In truth, the idioms and political consciousness of classic folk have long figured in the music of the Mekons, the punk-influenced band with which Langford and Timms have worked since the 1980s, among numerous other projects. The two fronted a set apiece as they performed songs from their appropriately titled new EP, Songs of False Hope and High Values (Bloodshot).
Timms, backed by Langford on acoustic guitar, former Meat Purveyors upright bassist Cherilyn DiMond and gifted multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, also sang several songs from her solo disc Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments ... for Lost Buckaroos.
Langford's set with DiMond and Rauhouse included some choice selections from the Mekons and Waco Brothers catalogs.
The band played not with reverence but with genuine understanding of country and folk, which kept things interesting, as did Timms and Langford's good-natured bantering.
Timms' unassuming manner and warm, languid vocals had a relaxing effect on the audience, who swiftly herded to the front of the stage and nodded, smiling, as the band sashayed through "Dreaming Cowboy" (RealAudio excerpt). The instrumentation and arrangements gave the Handsome Family's "The Sad Milkman" (RealAudio excerpt) and especially Dolly Parton's "Down From Dover" the feel of classic English folk ballads.
Despite Timms' introductory wisecrack "Go do your folk dancing off in the corner" audience members stood still and listened attentively to their version of Robbie Fulks' "In Bristol Town One Bright Day." The haunting narrative was enhanced by Rauhouse's plangent banjo and Timms' creamy vocal tones.
Exhibiting superb technical control, she sang Johnny Cash's "Cry Cry Cry" and Jeff Tweedy's "When the Roses Bloom Again" with a sense of personal understanding of the nature of life's disappointments. The band's gently swaying, wistful rendition of the country standard "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" breathed more than the somewhat hushed version on the EP and earned loud cheers from the audience.
More non-midtempo songs would have been welcome, but the only real disappointment of Timms' set was the absence of the bawdy stories that are a hallmark of her stage performances. At one point, she joked, "I'd say something coarse, but Cherilyn's mum is here," which may account for her restraint.
She did make one sly jab at Nashville when introducing Cash's song, saying, "You kicked him out of town, didn't you? Oh no, that was Nashville." From somewhere in the vicinity of the soundboard, a voice answered, "Nah, we like Johnny Cash."
Nashville and the enforced standard of mediocrity it has come to represent was a favorite target during Langford's looser, more energetic set. Though it seemed the Los Angeles crowd was tamer and less twang-centric than, say, his hometown Chicago audiences, he received particularly loud cheers for the acidic "Nashville Radio" from his Gravestone EP and the Waco Brothers' "The Death of Country Music." When he sang "The bones of country music/ Lie there in their casket/ Beneath the towers of Nashville/ In a deep black pool of neglect," it sounded like he changed "bones" to "balls."
Langford's sturdy, rough-hewn voice and down-to-earth commentary established a comfortable rapport with the audience. He introduced a bouncy new country song, "A Little Bit of Help Now Wouldn't Hurt," but his strongest moments came during "Sentimental Marching Song" (RealAudio excerpt) from his Skull Orchard disc, as Rauhouse's slide playing on a Weissenborn guitar conjured eerie atmospherics.
On Eric Von Schmidt's "Joshua Gone Barbados," a protest anthem about a sugarcane strike, Rauhouse's intuitive playing cleanly colored the melody; his work was uniformly excellent throughout the evening. Bristling with energy, DiMond performed with playful but solid style.
Club chatter throughout the night was minimal, which is unusual in Los Angeles. The small but devoted audience which consisted largely of diehard Mekons fans enjoyed a full evening of rewarding, well-performed music, but not everyone was smitten with the folk orientation.
Mekons fan Grace Kennelly of Pasadena, Calif., said, "Jon's got that between-song pitter-patter down really well, but the songs didn't do a lot for me, except for 'Sentimental Marching Song,' [which] I really liked. I've seen Sally before, and I really liked her."
Indeed, Timms' entire set was warmly received by the audience, and a number of attendees were overheard commending the entrancing beauty of her voice and humming snatches of her songs as they walked away.