With a fine arts degree from Leeds University in England, Jon Langford’s pedigree would seem better fit for painting than punk, but that latter path is the one he took. He was a founder of the Mekons, a band described by Lester Bangs as “the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. They are also the finest artists ever to have graced this admittedly somewhat degenerate form with the grace of their aesthetic sensibilities, rarefied as a glimpse through a butterfly’s wing.” With such legendary status, Langford’s next move might have been surprising: he started playing old-time country.
Born in Wales, Langford first started realizing the connection between country and punk when an American told him that what the Mekons played was actually country music–with all it’s drinkin’ and cheatin’. He moved to Chicago in 1991 and later was a founding member of the alt-country band the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. But as the successes of these bands grew so did his fascination with American roots music by Johnny Cash, the Carter family, Bob Wills and others. And he also kept painting, making portraits of these heroes in paint and etched copper plates. He told the Chicago Sun-Times, “The idea to do those tribute paintings of neglected country singers was a direct response to coming to America and finding out that Bob Wills wasn’t a household name like I thought he should be.” But, further, the portrait form came to him while downing a beer at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. Amid framed photos of long-gone musicians he realized, “There was a music industry graveyard up on that wall. Country music had moved on to this shiny white suburban pop and the stuff I liked was pitched. The only place I could find it was on those walls.”
Graveyards–both literal and of the music industry’s dead-end variety–factor heavily in his performance work The Executioner’s Last Songs, which he performs with members of the Mekons and Pere Ubu at the Walker on February 10 and 11. The work combines his visual art with storytelling and music, all to lead an autobiographical traipse through his experiences in the music biz as well as his political thought on the death penalty. Coinciding with the show is a free gallery talk by Langford at the Walker on Februay 9, and an exhibition of paintings at Minneapolis’ Rogue Buddha Gallery, February 8 through March 18. (The gallery has extended its hours February 9 through 11 to accomodate Walker visitors.)