Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jon Langford and Walter Salas-Humara; July 21, 2011; The Frequency

At first Welshman Jon Langford and New Yorker Walter Salas-Humara seem an odd pair, but on closer inspection it actually makes perfect sense. There are many parallels, Langford formed seminal punk band the Mekons in the UK over thirty years ago, while back here Salas-Humara started the Silos, a critically praised roots rock band. Members from both of these bands have come and gone, but both remain a constant presence. In fact, Salas-Humara is the only constant member of the Silos. Langford has released many of the records from his many bands on Bloodshot Records out of Chicago, a city which he has called home for two decades. The Silos released their 2007 record on the same label. But what may be the main factor that brought these men together is their artistic output not with a guitar but with a paintbrush.

Their techniques couldn’t be more different. Langford creates detailed paintings, populated with images of cowboys, skulls and revered musicians- Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Cale, often styling an entire painting after one of his songs, painstakingly fitting the lyrics into the context of the artwork. Salas-Humara paints dogs, Walter’s Dogs he calls them appropriately enough. They are not painstaking, they aren’t even realistic- they have spaghetti legs, tongues hanging out, sometimes two heads- but they are adorable. He has recently expanded his art into other areas- T-shirts, handbags, and stuffed animals- and he even offers “portraits” of your dog. While it may have been the art that brought them together for that first show, it is their camaraderie that has kept them doing these shows, each year expanding to another city.

It was supposed to be an 8 PM show, but at 8 PM they were just starting their dinner at the nearby Tornado Room, Langford’s dining spot of choice for better than ten years. Salas-Humara started the night, playing several songs before Langford made his way to the stage. The show was even more cooperative than the one the year before. There were a couple songs on which they both played guitar, but usually while one was playing a tune, the other tapped on the bongos. Yep bongos, trust me, it sounded cooler than it sounds. Just watching their enthusiasm (especially Langford’s) on the oft-maligned drum percussion pair was a highlight of the show. Both have more than their share of dark songs, but they are endlessly jovial on stage. Salas-Humara in particular has what is perhaps the most winning and infectious smile I have even seen; it lights up his face and the room.

While Salas-Humara featured songs from the Silos’ new release Florizona, Langford mined a group of songs that once were old but are new again. His most recent Bloodshot offering is Skull Orchard Revisited, a book featuring his art and stories as well as writings from his father and brother centering on his childhood in Newport, Wales. Most of these songs were originally featured on the first Skull Orchard release, but they were re-recorded with the Burlington Welsh Men’s Choir for this special release. The Vancouver group is also much cooler than they sound, instead of turning it into a Mormon Tabernacle spectacle; they add depth and beauty to the songs. My favorite of these is the story of how the filming of the epic Moby Dick brought a temporary spotlight to the depressed Newport. “All the locals were extras, all the locals got paid,” it was enough to get me to finally rent the classic. (Spoiler alert, Ahab really is bat-shit crazy and Ishmael is the only one who survives the expedition.) He also delved into last year’s Skull Orchard record, the excellent Old Devils including “Luxury” and “Getting Used to Uselessness.”

Salas-Humara had a number of requests but he honored the classic “Susan Across the Ocean,” a heart-breaking song of loss. I’ve been lucky enough to have had both of these terrific artists play my basement and they weren’t going to let that go unrewarded. During “Sheila” a song of mistaken identity, one verse became “You say your name is Kiki, you look like Sheila,” which made more sense than Langford’s improv suggestion of “Gaynor,” to which he finally added “Gloria Gaynor.” With two sets and a long break, the show went much longer than it should have, but it is hard to complain about something this entertaining.

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