By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — When it comes to musicians who were part of the first wave of punk bands that emerged from the UK in the late ’70s, few songwriters have a body of work as diverse as Jon Langford. A founding member of The Mekons when the band formed at the University of Leeds in 1977, Langford played drums on the group’s landmark debut The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen that was recorded on instruments borrowed from friends and contemporaries the Gang of Four.
While the band would slide into inactivity after a their second album left Virgin Records bewildered in the early ’80s, Langford had already taken up playing guitar in the post-punk outfit the Three Johns. He would split his time between the two bands once the Mekons revived to protest the 1984 British miners strike and rail against Prime Minister Margret Thatcher’s conservative rule. The Mekons returned with another seminal recording, the country and British folk influenced Fear and Whiskey the following year, pursuing that roots-focused style of punk on subsequent recordings The Edge of the World and Honky Tonkin’.
While the Three Johns dissolved and the Mekons moved back towards more straight-ahead punk rock by the end of the decade, the prolific Langford would soon be pursuing additional creative avenues. Relocating to Chicago with other members of the Mekons early in the 1990s, the songwriter developed a number of collaborative projects with musicians from his newly adopted home. In addition to one-off supergroup Killer Shrews with guitarist Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart) began recording and touring regularly with the Waco Brothers in 1994, exploring an alternative country sound that would also influence his later work with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and numerous solo recordings and partnerships.
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Langford has been a regular guest at the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, performing with the Mekons, as a guest of the Sadies and with his own groups. The songwriter returns once again this year, performing songs from his latest project and album, Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls. Teaming with fellow Chicago-based musicians Bethany Thomas, John Szymanski and Tawny Newsome, Langford and company decamped to Muscle Shoals, AL, to record a new batch of material with famed Nashville producer (Michael Nesmith, the Flying Burrito Brothers, John Hiatt) and original Muscle Shoals session player Norbert Putnam.
The resulting album mixes the Langford’s folk and country influences with elements of gospel, soul and southern rock, taking the songwriter into swampy new territory that at times touches on the sounds of ’70s Stax greats the Staples Singers while still maintaining his trademark fiery political message. Langford had a busy visit to SF during last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, appearing with Four Lost Souls multiple times and guesting on his own at festival-related concerts by the Sadies and others.
He returns to San Francisco this week, performing at the SF Sketchfest sponsored tributes to the Wes Anderson films Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums on Thursday night at the Chapel before headlining his own gig at the Make-Out Room on Friday evening. Veteran San Francisco alt-country favorites Virginia Dare will warm up the crowd before Langford’s set with fellow Mekon Rico Bell and surprise guests at the early show in the Mission District.
Jon Langford with Virginia Dare
Friday, January 19, 7 p.m. $20
The Make-Out Room