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A world premiere commissioned by Alverno Presents, Walker Art Center and the National Performance Network. “Possessed by the demon of rock’n'roll, haunted by the ghosts of old country music.” Paul Verna, Billboard The 2004/2005 season concludes with Alverno Presents first commissioning of a new work from protean artist Jon Langford. Best known as the fiery frontman for the Mekons, one of the most resilient pop-punk bands to emerge from Britain in the late ’70s, Jon has also been involved in numerous side projects, including the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Langford fell in love with American country music when he was a kid, and he’s played his permutation of it ever since. When Langford met anti-death penalty lawyer Dick Cunningham in 1999, he became involved with the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and decided to use his music to make an anti-death penalty statement to benefit this cause. “Murder. It’s as American as apple pie, lynching, trial by the press, life imprisonment and other cruel and unusual punishments. Songs of murder, revenge, infanticide and other bloody minded pursuits have a long history in both Britain and the United States, so when head Cosmonaut Jon Langford got involved with the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, he decided to use music to make his contribution.” (J. Poet, “Pulse”, April 2001.) Langford’s exploration of these “songs of murder, mob-law, & cruel, cruel punishment” led to the discovery of a secondary but no less passionately held theme. Jon was taken with the idea that, once upon a time, the popular culture could embrace without flinching subjects and stories about life and death. He sees this in sharp contrast to what he refers to as our present “vacuity of culture” where the mainstream cannot appear to tolerate anything more profound than “bread and circus” theatrics. In many respects, this is a theme he has taken on in his paintings. Langford is not only a musician, but also a painter and comic artist. (He got his start as an art student in the same Leeds University scene of the mid 70′s that produced the Gang of Four.) His multi-layered paintings take imagery from old country music publicity photos and sheet music and envelope them in a haze of ironic nostalgia. His use of the iconography of the country music artist depicts a conflict between the authenticity of intent and the demands of corporate entertainment. Alverno Presents has approached Langford with the following idea: what would it be like to create a performance the joins The Executioner’s Last Songs with the imagery of Langford’s paintings. Langford responded to the request with an almost electric enthusiasm. Thrilled with an opportunity to create a total and singular performance from his varied artistic explorations, Langford has commenced work on what will be a career-defining performance that will bring the 2004-2005 Alverno Presents season to a magnificent and exciting conclusion.


Paul Verna, Billboard
The 2004/2005 season concludes with Alverno Presents first commissioning of a new work from protean artist Jon Langford. Best known as the fiery frontman for the Mekons, one of the most resilient pop-punk bands to emerge from Britain in the late ’70s, Jon has also been involved in numerous side projects, including the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts.

Langford fell in love with American country music when he was a kid, and he’s played his permutation of it ever since. When Langford met anti-death penalty lawyer Dick Cunningham in 1999, he became involved with the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and decided to use his music to make an anti-death penalty statement to benefit this cause.

“Murder. It’s as American as apple pie, lynching, trial by the press, life imprisonment and other cruel and unusual punishments. Songs of murder, revenge, infanticide and other bloody minded pursuits have a long history in both Britain and the United States, so when head Cosmonaut Jon Langford got involved with the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, he decided to use music to make his contribution.” (J. Poet, “Pulse”, April 2001.)

Langford’s exploration of these “songs of murder, mob-law, & cruel, cruel punishment” led to the discovery of a secondary but no less passionately held theme. Jon was taken with the idea that, once upon a time, the popular culture could embrace without flinching subjects and stories about life and death. He sees this in sharp contrast to what he refers to as our present “vacuity of culture” where the mainstream cannot appear to tolerate anything more profound than “bread and circus” theatrics.

In many respects, this is a theme he has taken on in his paintings. Langford is not only a musician, but also a painter and comic artist. (He got his start as an art student in the same Leeds University scene of the mid 70′s that produced the Gang of Four.) His multi-layered paintings take imagery from old country music publicity photos and sheet music and envelope them in a haze of ironic nostalgia. His use of the iconography of the country music artist depicts a conflict between the authenticity of intent and the demands of corporate entertainment.

Alverno Presents has approached Langford with the following idea: what would it be like to create a performance the joins The Executioner’s Last Songs with the imagery of Langford’s paintings. Langford responded to the request with an almost electric enthusiasm. Thrilled with an opportunity to create a total and singular performance from his varied artistic explorations, Langford has commenced work on what will be a career-defining performance that will bring the 2004-2005 Alverno Presents season to a magnificent and exciting conclusion.

‘Last Songs’ a bold self-portrait

Langford reveals some of himself in show
By JON GILBERTSON S
pecial to the Journal Sentinel Posted: April 24, 2005
The question “Where do you get your ideas?” is not as straightforward as “Who are you?” But a full and honest answer to the latter forms a beginning of an answer to the former.
That was an important subtext in “The Executioner’s Last Songs,” a presentation Jon Langford made Saturday night at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre.
The title of the presentation referred to three albums Langford organized, on which various musicians (including himself) performed mostly old, mostly classic and mostly country songs about love and heartbreak and murder and punishment. And they did this to raise money to fight the death penalty.
But Langford didn’t so much tell the story of putting those albums together as tell a stranger, more intriguing story of how he became the sort of man who would put those albums together.
Considering Langford’s artistic history – founding member of the Mekons, a British punk-rock band of more than 25 years’ standing; a Welshman in Chicago who has fallen in love with backwoods American music – his decision to take the roundabout way was artistically sound.
The use of Langford’s myriad talents was equally sound. With the support of fellow musicians – including Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone and Mekons chanteuse Sally Timms – he illustrated his anecdotes with songs ranging from the Mekons’ first single, “Never Been in a Riot,” to Lefty Frizzell’s timeless death ballad “Long Black Veil.”
With the backdrop of a screen manned by friend and collaborator Barry Mills, Langford was able to display huge projections of his paintings and prints, with their sense of the near-religious iconography of country-music greats such as Bob Wills and Johnny Cash.
Using those songs, those paintings, detailed anecdotes, polemics and a few jokes, Langford sketched a bold self-portrait of the young man as an art student, the art student as a punk rocker, the punk rocker as a major-label slave . . . and, eventually, the older and wiser man as a commercially but not artistically marginal cultural figure.
While the presentation had technical glitches and rough spots, “The Executioner’s Last Songs” was infrequently strident, rarely pretentious and never dull. Timms and violinist Jean Cook spoke and sang in counterpoint to Langford’s end of the tale, while Mills – also a TV writer and producer – alternated Langford’s art with his wit. Langford can give a variety of answers to “Who are you?” and Saturday he gave them in manner both entertaining and enlightening.

From the April 25, 2005, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Well, you beat me to it. Gilbertson had a pretty good article, but it seemed that he maybe was unfamiliar with some of Jonny’s work, as he only name-checked a couple of songs.
Best summary of the night: As we were walking out, two little old ladies with white hair were walking in front of me; one said, a bit breathlessly “Well, I didn’t know WHAT to expect. But I could’ve listened to a couple more songs.” Langford wows the old lady art intelligentsia!
No but seriously, it was a wonderful show, covering all of the work Jonny has done in one set. Well, two sets. One thing that struck me was that with the 16 foot square backdrop/screen, and the alternating of spoken word and music, corresponding to the visuals, with interjections of humor- it seemed like what a fully realized Mekons show would be if they had, you know, decent size crowds in good theaters, and a stage budget.
The other overall impression I had was while we were leaving that this theater full of people probably outnumbers the total of the last five or six Mekons shows in Milwaukee. Made me want to shake random people and make them promise to come to see the band next time they’re in town. Heck, Maybe some of them will.
The band, was not completely tight; but that actually worked in their favor, the looseness allowed for some impressionistic efforts.
The normal onstage banter was replaced by the written spiels Jon interspersed (sometimes in the middle of the song; which worked really well for “Memphis, Egypt” but not so well in “Never Been In A Riot”) Once or twice he and Sally broke from the script to make more normal snide comments. And, of course, Sally played her shruti box; an instrument that ‘the laziest woman in show business’ can love.
He played songs from the Mekes, the Waco Bros., and his solo stuff as well as some very nice covers. Delilah, which Jon introduced as the National Anthem of Wales, and insisted that the audience stand out of respect. We did.
Particularly interesting were the videos of Jonny’s bits as the Old Salty Dog on the Rudy and Gogo cartoon show, wherein he spouts poetry as a pirate while sitting in a kayak superimposed on a bathroom sink. Oh, and he had a plastic parrot on his shoulder. Truly spectacular. And meant, as Jonny said early on, to puncture any self importance or pretension when it creeps into the show.
Very very funny stories about the early days of punk, and art school; Lester Bangs, who apparently liked them because they fully agreed with his estimation of their sound as ‘dog-turd music’ Later on, Jon says “You may realize I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with your country. I love George Jones and I hate George Bush.” And then at the end, he sings ‘The Country is Young’ as a plea for tolerance.
The visuals consisted mainly of Jon’s artwork, but photos of the Mekons, and Wales, and country music stars, especially the Sundowners, appeared throughout. Sally and Jean Cook, the violin player, shared some of the reading with Jonny. Jean read the ‘Sophie Bourbon’ letters, and I thought she hit just exactly the right note of ennui, and resignation, and nihilism; it was nearly exactly the voice I heard in my head for those letters.

A partial song list (based on my creaky old memory, so not necessarily in order, and not necessarily complete)
Never Been In A Riot
Lonely and Wet
Memphis, Egypt
Gallows Pole (midway between the Executioners version, the sex pistols version and the Led Zeppelin version – dang, it just rocked)
Ghosts of American Astronauts
Tubby Brothers
I Picked up the Pieces (Sally)
The Plans We Made (Jon And Sally)
Sentimental Marching Song
Tom Jones Levitation
Dreaming Cowboy (Sally)
Long Black Veil (Sally)
Sputnik 57
Over the Cliff
Walking on Hell’s Roof
Dollar Dress
It’s Not Enough
Death of Country Music
Nashville Radio
The Country is Young (show closer)

And then they played a couple of encores. Jonny introduced them by saying they wouldn’t be doing anymore ‘theatrical stuff’ but just playing some songs. During the last song, I laughed to see Sally wander off behind the backdrop, and just kind of wander around back there.
It will be interesting to see how much of this ends up being used in other shows.


From:

Kiki’s Magical Music Reviews

Jon Langford “The Executioner’s Last Song;” April 23, 2005 ; Pitman Theater

I could pretty much watch Jon Langford do anything. To use an over-used phrase, he could read the phone book and I would be there, absolutely enthralled and giving him an A. However, this art and music presentation was significantly more developed than that. Commissioned by Alverno in conjunction with Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, “The Executioner’s Last Song” was ostensibly about his opposition to the death penalty which has spurred the release of three volumes of murder ballads, mostly performed by one of his many bands the Pine Valley Cosmonauts with a host of guest vocalists, to benefit the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, but was instead really all about him, his life and how exactly how he got to that point in it. Which was a bit of a relief, an entire evening of preaching could have been tedious, even with that amazing, extremely sexy, accent.

He certainly chose the right supporting cast to help him out. Of course fellow Mekon Sally Timms was there, Langford seldom makes an appearance where Sally isn’t included somehow. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, she possesses the best female country voice, sweet and pure, as opposed to her often tart and aggressive personality (as it says in her bio, “she has blond hair, grey eyes and appalling mood swings” and I have witnessed them live). In addition to providing backing vocals on most songs, which were interspersed with the spoken word sections, she also took lead on several, including the ever bewitching “Long Black Veil.” Already the most frequently covered song in my CD collection, I can always use another version. Also providing backing vocals was violinist Jean Cook (apparently also part of the Cosmonauts, who I have oddly enough never seen). Cook’s violin work was impeccable, but it was her spoken interludes that were most memorable. She read a series of letters, so embittered they had to be real, from a daughter to her mother who had apparently “adopted” the Mekons back in the 80’s. Full of scorn and spite, they were also oft amusing.

It is hard to imagine a better rhythm section. On drums, Dan Massey from Brookfield IL , though he is also a member of the Cosmonauts and according to his bio has toured with Elton John, he is most familiar to me as Robbie Fulks’s drummer prior to Gerald. Even more impressive was bassist Tony Maimone from the legendary Pere Ubu who tonight did all his bass parts on a banjo, neat.

Since resuming painting several years ago, Langford has developed a distinctive style, old-time country greats like Hank Williams along with weathered depictions of skeleton cowboys and skulls, that I can’t help but associate with Bloodshot Records. Since tonight was as much about the art as it was the music, Barry Mills was an integral part of the evening, projecting the paintings as well as old photos of the Mekons in a smooth montage behind the band. A dabbler in television and music, it was his work with Rudy & Gogo’s World Famous Cartoon Show that made the most lasting impression. A children’s show that remained on the air only until, according to Langford, “the people who sponsored it bothered to watch it.” Also home to the Cowboy Sally character (Timms), the show featured Langford as The Olde Salty Sea Biscuit, a segment wherein he was shown dressed as a sea captain, floating in a kayak in a bathroom sink, singing bad poetry with a wooden parrot on his shoulder. Seriously.

Langford’s songs came from a variety of sources, some were from the Last Songs volumes, some from early Mekons releases, and some from his most recent solo release, the stellar All the Fame of Lofty Deeds. From the latter, “Nashville Radio” was the standout, a sordid tale of excess on the road to fame on the Nashville radio stations, “if they don’t play my song on the radio, it’s like I never was.” Before performing “Delilah” he requested that we “all stand for the Welsh national anthem.” When no one moved, he demanded that we show a little respect for his country as he always has for ours. Whether or not that is actually the National Anthem I don’t know, though it does seem unlikely. He then let us sit down, as “you must be very tired.” No doubt there were many patrons who were only there because this was the final presentation in their Alverno presents season, but there was also a good showing by the alt-country crowd, a good many of whom I recognized.

Well done Jon, well done indeed.

Kiki’s


From Shepherd Express

Punk, Country and the Executioner

When Jon Langford performed his world premiere of “The Executioner’s Last Songs” last Saturday night at Alverno, it was important that the old punk find a way to summarize and clarify his years of prolific artistry without creating a greatest hits show too disjointed or too straightforward. He needed to bring out the many voices of his one voice, and he succeeded.

Throughout the night, paintings were projected behind his band, while a progression of letters, poems and artistic statements were read between songs. A few TV skits of Langford as the Old Salty Sea Biscuit added some wacky buoyancy to the performance.

Taken as a life story, the show begins with his youth in south Wales and ends with his recent political activism. Though Langford’s past with the iconic punk band the Mekons is his claim to fame, his later years of exploring country music make Langford a more complex artist. Beside the hypnotic display of his semi-religious painting of Hank Williams, with arrows through him in a portrayal of Saint Sebastian, Langford explores in music and words the similarities between punk and country—old country, he stresses. Punk may be more about protest and appearance than is old-school country, but they both examine drugs, loneliness, adultery and murder.

The close of Langford’s performance deals with capital punishment in an illogically sane way by telling stories of criminal passion through the murderer’s perspective. Johnny Cash, to name one, has killed many fictional men in his songs. In his song/painting “The Country is Young,” Langford explains that he intends “to reveal something of the dark, violent face America shows the rest of the world.”

Langford returned for an encore, finally playing the guitar with some ferocity. Langford will continue his contact with Milwaukee, highbrow, lowbrow and all, as an artist-in-residence for the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Stemming in part from Langford’s performance, the Alverno Debate series will present “Up Against the Wall: The Death Penalty in the United States, Thursday, April 28 at Wehr Hall (41st and Morgan Ave.) Free and open to the public.

-Brandon Lewis

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