Jon Langford & Skull Orchard/Sally Timms/Danbert Nobacon; October 15, 2010; The Frequency
As we traveled back toward Madison, the HHT boys asked if I was sure I didn’t want to keep going to Chicago with them. Of course I did, and the temptation was very very strong, but just as much I wanted to see Jon Langford and Skull Orchard at the Frequency tonight. I’d met Langford on several occasions over the years, but he never really remembered me until after he played the basement back in April. Since then he’d made a point of informing me about upcoming shows in town and saying he hoped to see me there. And I certainly don’t ever want to disappoint Langford. I always enjoy him, even more so when the amazing Sally Timms is also in attendance; their amusing exchange of quips and barbs is a guaranteed highlight. So despite the powerful lure of another HHT show, I said good-bye to them in Madison. Prior to this year, Langford’s appearances in Madison have been rare, but this marked his third trip up I-90 this year. “I just realized how close it is,” the 15 plus year Chicago resident confided.
Even rarer have been Skull Orchard CD releases. The terrific new “Old Devils” comes a short 14 years after its predecessor, their self-titled debut. Anyone who knows Langford knows he’s been busy with a host of other projects and multiple bands in the meantime, but it is nice to see him return to what might have been thought a forgotten band. This incarnation includes the Waco Brothers rhythm section of drummer Joe Camarillo and bassist Alan Doughty, in addition to another ex-pat Brit, the handsome and talented Jim Elkington from the Zincs, on guitar. “Old Devils” is a solid release and a definite contender for the top spot on my year-end list. I felt like I knew the songs after only a few listens; Langford’s swoon-worthy Welsh accent, so palpable in his singing voice, cementing them in my memory. A number of guests show up to help out on record, but only Sally was present tonight to reprise her role. She had been downstairs following her set, but ventured back up at the mention of her name. Since she wasn’t actually needed till later in the set, she waited patiently on the stage steps before joining the band for several songs, notably the forlorn “The Book of Your Life.” For the pacifist anthem “Strange Way to Win Wars” I had expected Timms to take Tawny Newsome’s backing vocal role from the record. Instead it took me a few moments to figure out it was Camarillo echoing Langford.
While Sally would have her own band the next night in Chicago for their hometown version of the Old Devil’s Ball, tonight Langford and Elkington joined her. It’s hard to say which city got the better set. She opened with Langford’s stunning composition “Horses.” A death row anthem covered memorably by Chris Mills on Vol.2 of the Executioner’s Last Songs, part of Langford’s musical campaign to fight the Illinois Death Penalty. She could have quit right there, but instead continued with a string of winners including two Handsome Family songs, the pitiful tale of “The Sad Milkman” and “Drunk by Noon” with its quote of the day, “If my life lasted only one day, I'd still be drunk by noon.” Sally usually just sings, which is just fine since she has one of the most perfect voices I’ve heard, but I have seen her play the occasional ukulele (at the Old Town School of Folk, borrowed from their store Different Strummer, played with the price tag still attached) and her instrument of choice tonight, an odd contraption decidedly of the accordion family that looks more like a briefcase than an instrument. It was featured on a song that was meant to be solemn until Langford made a series of haunted sounding noises only to be answered with a banshee like yodel from Sally. “Weren’t expecting that were you?” she deadpanned.
Opener Danbert Nobacon was in Chumbawumba, but that doesn’t even begin to explain his odd show. His songs might be good, but the fact that his voice and guitar playing are not prevented me from ever knowing. His musical performance was strange enough, but things really got bizarre when he reached into his bag and pulled out a ventriloquist dummy with a skull head. Thus were we introduced to Mr. Death. What followed was an uncomfortable but oddly entertaining exchange between him and Nobacon. His voice-throwing skills are on a par with his singing, so it was often hard to understand what Mr. Death was actually saying. Amusingly, Nobacon would question him with a “huh? I didn’t understand that.” While I don’t know if Chicago met Mr. Death, I do know they got Nobacon in a suit with pitchforks on it. While I was delighted with the show we got, I do wish I would have seen that.
Jon Langford & Skull Orchard