I went to see the Mekons last night at Iota in Arlington, Virginia. It was the first time I've seen them live and I was mightily impressed. The Mekons are even better live than on record, possessing an easy familiarity from two decades of touring and a loose performance style that always remains in service to the song. And Jon Langford and Sally Timms have honed the between-song give-and-take to the standards of an old-fashioned comedy team. (When Branson, Missouri opens a street devoted solely to post-punk, the Langford-Timms Theater is going to be the most popular attraction.)
The setlist consisted mostly of songs from their newest album Punk Rock, a collection of remakes of their earliest material. The show suffered from the same problem as the album; while it's impressive that the 2004 edition of the Mekons is able to make decent to good material out of such thin gruel, the fact remains that these songs pale in comparison to their more recent output. Nevertheless, several of the Punk Rock songs stood out: "Corporal Chalkie" has been recast as a rueful anti-war ballad with a wearily expressive Timms vocal and "32 Weeks and "Dan Dare" were pounded out with a ferocity that made their predecessors 25 years ago sound tame. And the standards still sound fresh - Tom Greenhalgh's alienated Reagan-era "(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian" sounds even more apt in this day and age, and Timms' clear as a bell delivery of "Ghosts of American Astronauts" adds an unusual emotional resonance for a song that's essentially a comment on American imperialism.
I was eight feet from the door when they came back on stage for the second encore, "Heaven and Back." I would've cursed myself forever for missing such an incredible performance - a soaring, blistering take of an anthemic song on overcoming struggle (personal, professional, political) that's served as a summary of the Mekons mission. It was a transcendent moment, and a prime example of why a seemingly disposable art form like rock music is worth all of the hype, bother and attention. It's a testament to the incredible staying power of the Mekons, who've managed to remain important, vital performers in a medium that values youth above all else and when so many of their contemporaries have fallen victim to dissolution, laziness and creative inability.