We Know It’s Only Rock N’ Roll But We Like It

A QUIET NIGHT IN WITH: The Mekons, World Cafe Live, Tuesday Night

BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER If you ever crunched the numbers on rock stardom, you would ask yourself why anyone bothers trying. Sure, there will always be that one-in-a-million talent that, whether through luck or lightning caught in a bottle, will shoot human cannonball-style into the rarefied heights of immortality. But for most it is a life of minor-key daily indignity, a soft but uninterrupted hell of winnowing expectations and diminished returns that will bring them all the fame of philatelist and all the riches of a gas station attendant. There is, of course, a third way: Don’t try so hard.

Live where you want to, record when the muse strikes, tour when you feel like it. Maybe even take a few years off to finish a grad degree or maybe have some kids. Such is the way of the Mekons, the Chicago-by-way-of-Leeds post-punk collective, that long ago turned away from noisy, Clash-style kiss-offs and proto-Marxist cant in favor of down-from-the-mountain hootenannery to vent about the injustice of it all and take inventory in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Thirty years later, they have become an institution and an enduring source of inspiration for those who still believe that sometimes good guys don’t wear white. “Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late,” they sang back in 1989 on the anthemic opening salvo of “Rock N’ Roll” — both a semi-serious subversion of the smug contentment of bourgeois capitalist pigs and a black-humored lament about the thanklessness of their chosen profession.

Billed as “a quiet night in with the The Mekons,” Tuesday’s performance at the World Cafe Live was just that: All eight members seated in a semi-circle and clutching stringed and folkish instrumentation — violin, squeezebox, oud, saz, hand drums, and guitars — trading vocals and jokes, and a pickin’ and a grinnin’ through old bones (the reggae-tone Thatcher hex of “Tina” and the sepulchral amen of “Ghosts Of American Astronauts”) and precious new stones (the purdy-mouthed torch-folk of “The Hope And The Anchor” and the fatalistic dub-bounce of “Cockermouth”) from their quite lovely new album, Natural. All of which proved that there is life — a good life, in fact — after the hormones subside and the ideology gets stale, and the limelight has long since moved elsewhere. That is once you come to the Zen-like realization that rock n’ roll is its own reward, the joy is in the making of it, and the rock you make is roughly equal to the love you take.

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