To paraphrase Mark Twain, country music's death has been greatly exaggerated.
As side projects go, the Waco Brothers are reasonably well established. The six-person band, whose members hail from the Mekons (Jon Langford and Steve Goulding), Jesus Jones (Alan Doughty), Dollar Store (Deano Schlabowske) and KMFDM (Marc Durante), has to date put out nine albums over 13 years, all but one on the rowdy country label Bloodshot Records. Yet if you believe the mythology, the Waco Brothers were never really intended to ply their art in the studio. Instead, the band was founded to earn beer money at raucous gigs, first in Chicago, later worldwide, in a sweat-soaked, lefty-politicking storm of twang and thunder.
In a way, then, Waco Express: Live & Kickin’ at Schuba’s Tavern, Chicago is a homecoming, albeit for a band that never really left town. It is as loose and friendly and sloppy-great as beer sloshed in plastic cups onto sawdust floors. The live album ranges freely over the Waco’s massive catalog, drawing on both punk and country, without ever losing sight of the main point: This is one kicking live band.
Live & Kickin' at Schuba's Tavern, Chicago
US: 4 Mar 2008
UK: 3 Mar 2008
The show, recorded in December 2006 at Schuba’s (which is Chicago’s ground central for alt.country and the Bloodshot aesthetic), sounds like an especially good one, the band loose enough to trade sarcasms (Deano: “We were emo before it was cool ... oh, wait ... it still isn’t cool.”) but still tight enough to kick your ass. The Wacos have a lot of options when they construct a set list, but the band seems to have gone primarily for old favorites. There are four from the first album (1995’s To the Last Dead Cowboy) and five from Cowboy in Flames, two years later, and one or two each from Waco World (1999), Electric Waco Chair (2000), New Deal (2002) and Freedom and Weep (2005). Yet their sound is so consistent, you’d be hard pressed to sort the songs without a score card. Mid-album, the hard-charging, rapid-paced “Missing Link” (from the last studio album, Freedom and Weep) leads directly into the sensitive and countrified “If You Don’t Change Your Mind” from Waco-historic To the Last Dead Cowboy. It’s tempting to trace a pattern, the ebb and flow of punk versus country, but the truth is that the two styles fluctuate, cross over each other and merge, not just between songs but right in the middle of them. One of the many pleasures of, for instance, “Blink of an Eye” is the way that a country plucking stand-up bass pops out from the rampaging rock and roll beat.
The instrumentation is definitely country, from the plangent whine of the steel guitar to the thunderous plunk of stand-up bass to the one-two roadhouse punch of the drums. The energy and pace leans more towards punk, though, truth be told, lots of old rockabilly and traditional country runs pretty hard and quick as well. The band obviously has a longstanding, loving and fraught relationship with country music, adoring her but occasionally slapping her around when drunk on Saturday nights. For this, look no further than the rollicking “Death of Country Music,” set to the same sing-songy melody as that “the neck bone’s connected to the ... head bone” song. A smoking road-house guitar starts the cut off, paced by rinky-dink, rockabilly rimshots on the drums. The song has the stripped down, surpressed excitement of good rockabilly, only occasionally allowed to flare into full scorching mayhem.
Yet what’s different from Waco Brothers, besides a certain rampant glee, is the politics. This is not convention-reinforcing, traditional values country, not by a long-shot. The sole cover here, for instance, is Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues,” a take-no-prisoners hurtle through electrified, social protest, the protagonists who “live in a trailer / on the edge of town / 25 rifles to keep the population down.” And while there’s certainly a leftist, even socialist thread to traditional folk, who besides Billy Bragg extols the power of the union anymore? The Waco Brothers, that’s who, as they bend wild dopplering guitar runs over lyrics about the beauty of being “Plenty Tuff and Union Made.”
It’s a potent mix, the headlong rush alongside well-worn skill, the half-drunken banter next to razor sharp social commentary, and it comes across as unstudied, no, as a force of nature in this uniformly excellent CD. The main secret to a great live album is, obviously, making sure that you have a great live band to document. The rest is technicality—decent sound, the right amount of talk, the warmth of a receptive crowd, chemistry—and Waco Express gets these things right as well. The only problem with this album is that it reminds you, like a kick in the head, that you should have been at this show, instead of only hearing it second hand. That’s the acid test for the best concert recordings, and Waco Express passes easily.
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