Punk Pioneer Jon Langford Paints In Country Colors
Photo courtesy of Bloodshot Records
The phrase "renaissance man" is so overused that coin has lost most of its value. But Jon Langford -- artist, musician, playwright, radio disc jockey, songwriter, death-penalty opponent, punk rock pioneer, and philanthropist who rolls into the Continental Club Saturday with his ragtag ensemble of misfits the Waco Brothers -- fits the bill as well as anyone.
A founding member of seminal UK punk band the Mekons, Welsh-born Langford calls Chicago home these days, although he spends considerable time in Austin due to his association with South Congress art gallery Yard Dog, where his paintings of the heroes of American music are usually on display. He's also had a long association with Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot Records, and his paintings now appear on certain bottles of Dogfish Head Brewery ale.
Thoughtful, philosophical and funny, Langford laughs at Rocks Offs first query: When he rolls out of bed in the morning, does he consider himself a painter or a musician?
"I've just come back from my tax advisor," Langford laughs, "and according to him I'm exactly half of both. I love painting, but you have to understand that is quite a solitary endeavor, and I'm really a rather gregarious type of guy, I like people. So I enjoy the painting, but I also enjoy the fact that I can go get rowdy with these guys at night if I want."
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Langford has ventured south for his annual fall show at Yard Dog and, with old musical conspirator Dean Schlabowske having moved from Chicago to Austin, "It just made sense for us to do some dates down here."
"It's been a while since we played Houston," Langford notes, "so we thought why not book ourselves into the Continental in Houston as well as in Austin, and it just worked out."
Not only will Langford be doing a full Waco Brothers show, there will also be sets by Schlabowdke's band Deano and the Purvs, a few solo shots by Langford, and a blast of poetic Beefheartian blues-rock from Joe Doerr's ace band, Churchwood. As for whether he prefers a band setting or doing his own thing, Langford laughs again.
"Going solo, especially on a tour, I find rather lonesome and a bit confining," he says. "At the same time, the economics of touring with a band these days are almost prohibitive. I was talking to Nick Lowe about this and he said 'I can either go out and make a decent living playing solo or I can be an impoverished bandleader.'
"Still, going out solo only does it for so long for me," Langford swears. "And we all love to play together, so we want to do all the Wacos gigs we can as long as it makes sense."
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Langford recalls his early days in the States and his first realization that all of his country music heroes were largely forgotten.
"As a youngster, I was so moved by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Bob Wills, and it was something of an awakening for me when I got to Chicago," he says. "What was actually on the country-music stations on radio was a huge shock for me. I always thought the old country songs were so real and so moving, and when I heard country radio here in America I thought, 'Gee, they're glorifying stupidity.'
"Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams weren't like that," adds Langford. "Their songs were inclusive, almost welcoming whereas what I heard on radio was dumb and the playing was without much emotion. It really disturbed me when I realized almost no one cared anymore about that era and those artists, that they had basically just vanished.
Eventually Langford began recreating the likenesses of those vanishing artists he admired on canvas.
"In the beginning, I was a very straight portrait painter, just painting people from photographs as realistically as I could," he says. "I really wasn't thinking in terms of selling paintings, it was just something to do that I was interested in almost as a hobby.
"But once I started doing the types of paintings I do now, the other more interesting possibilities began to make themselves known. I was so taken with their outfits and their auras, and, at least for me, it was like the perfect subject matter to paint."
Much the same thing happened as far as the development of Langford's musical muse.
"Of course the Mekons were part of that whole English punk explosion of the late 70s," Langford recalls. "But I eventually wanted to step outside that occasionally, and I have really always been drawn to country music. So we began to do what I guess everyone now calls alternative country, mixing the two genres. But the big factor for us is just the fun of it. We truly enjoy playing country music."
Since dropping their first Bloodshot album in 1995, To the Last Dead Cowboy, the Wacos have reeled off ten albums of stinging country hijinks. The most recent release was 2012's The Great Chicago Fire with Paul Burch.
Langford has also long been part of the anti-death penalty movement. In 2005 he produced The Executioner's Last Song, a multimedia project that he has performed in select cities the past few years. He also hosts radio program "The Eclectic Company" on Chicago station WXRT and has contributed to NPR's "This American Life."
But Saturday night, he'll just be one of the Waco Brothers, out to play some country music and maybe get drunk. It should be quite a party.
"We have a lot of laughs and we drink as well, so it's usually anything goes at these gigs," he says.
The Waco Brothers, Deano & the Purvs and Churchwood play Saturday, October 19, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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