Bumbershoot, Mural Amphitheater, $20
3:30 p.m. Mon., Sept. 2
The venerable Mekons are rapidly approaching their 25th anniversary, yet Sally Timms is hardly in the throes of an acute nostalgia attack.
"There's not much to say about it really," Timms audibly shrugs via telephone from her Chicago home.
Her nonchalance betrays a healthy dose of modesty, or maybe just has to do with the fact that she's only been in the band 17 years (just Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh remain from the original lineup). Anyhow, the occasion isn't exactly going unrecognized. In fact, in some lucky locales—notably New York and Chicago— the plans are grand. New Yorkers will be treated to three successive nights of revelry, the first at CBGB celebrating the band's early years, the second at Maxwell's covering their midperiod, and a third at the Mercury Lounge focusing on the group's more recent output. The Chicago stay will be similarly themed, but will include an appearance by a Mekons cover band—Timms is keeping mum on its origin and membership (with a devilish snort, she cites Bono, Sting, Sheryl Crow, and Van Morrison as potential celebrity participants). Additionally, several cities will play host to openings featuring the band's prodigious catalog of visual art.
Still, when Timms suggests that this tour won't be much different from other Mekons tours, longtime fans should understand what she means. For one, the band has a new record, Oooh! (Quarterstick), that it wholeheartedly plans to spotlight—and rightfully so: I dare you to find a better record by a 25-year-old band. Call it their "gospel" record if you wish—"The Olde Trip to Jerusalem," "One X One," "Winter," and "Hate Is the New Love" are fine spirituals—but Oooh! again finds the crew upending a typically lengthy list of genres into something classifiable only as the Mekons sound. (For the record, Timms disapproves of the Bumbershoot program's "U.K. Hillbilly Punk" tag).
But the Mekons have never been stingy when it comes to giving the people what they want—several cuts from their seminal 1985 Fear and Whiskey LP have remained constants in the repertoire and a rousing rendition of their signature early single, "Never Been In a Riot," is by no means unprecedented.
Set list aside, the best reason to crave business as usual is that every Mekons tour exudes a carnivallike atmosphere. The band's reputation for hilarious between-song banter, ribald tales, and boozy shenanigans is the stuff of legend—to expect this summer's festivities to be appreciably more entertaining is nothing short of greedy. Few bands demonstrate a greater sense of joy while playing, an attribute as responsible for their longevity as any. The Mekons' politics and ethics frequently precede them, but the "fun" label proves even stickier.
Timms believes the reputation may have prevented the band from being viewed as fashionable early on and ultimately curbed their popularity, particularly in their native England. "We were never taken very seriously," according to Timms. "We were viewed as pranksters, jokers, even though the subject matter was often serious." Today, the Mekons no longer harbor an illusion that their star will rise higher than their "linear, but flatlined" fan base. Timms acknowledges that their aging audience attends fewer live shows and that in today's climate there are precious few outlets for "anything that's not flavor-of-the-month." She's also accepted that it's the band's "lot in life to be poor, poor, poor." (Wealthy benefactors, however, are still welcome; see www.home.t-online.de/home/ Norbert.Knape/ sallyfr.htm for details!).
Despite the grim balance sheet, don't be surprised if the Mekons make subsequent anniversary tours. Courtesy of a litany of side projects, an abundance of personal space—their lineup is scattered throughout the globe—and a balance of power that's remarkably equitable, the Mekons are a constantly, or at least frequently, rejuvenating entity. As atypical a band as they are, somewhere in all the anarchy resides a blueprint for sustained relevance that other groups would do well to copy. There have been a fair share of missteps (Timms wouldn't mind taking the Retreat From Memphis LP back), but their legacy is as assured as it remains unfinished.
When pressed to cite her proudest accomplishment as a Mekon, Timms concedes that "the fact that we've just kept going for so long" stands out foremost. Considering the still bully outlook, Timms' original statement seems about right—there isn't all that much in particular to say about a 25th anniversary. The mighty Mekons are coming to town, and that's grounds for celebration any old year.