The Mekons' Jon Langford and Austin's Jon Dee Graham ride Roots on the Rails to New Orleans to play Lemieux Galleries Sunday.
It’s telling. If jam/jazz/funk fans want to tie their music and their vacation together, there’s the Jam Cruise, where sun and laid-back vibes are built into the concept. Americana fans get Roots on the Rails, where they tap into the nostalgia that trains evoke and travel from famed city to famed city, accompanied by a few singer/songwriters or small bands. Parties don’t come more bookish.
That’s no reflection on the artists, though. Recently, Dayna Kurtz did a leg from New Orleans to Houston on a sold-out train, and on Sunday night, Roots on the Rails will bring the Two Jons to New Orleans: Jon Langford of The Mekons and the Waco Brothers, and Jon Dee Graham. They’ll perform a special acoustic show Sunday at 6 p.m. at Lemieux Galleries.
Langford’s songwriting, like the paintings he also shows at LeMieux Galleries, play with history, class, and iconography, the first two hardwired to the latter. His paintings of musicians and cultural figures could almost be stand-alone altar pieces, weaving together faces inspired by pub photos, scrambled with phrases dropped in like totems, scratched and defaced as if they were weathered by time. In “Pill Sailor,” he sings:
Shirley Bassey’s from Tiger Bay
But I spend my nights down in Pill
They shut down the docks
Thrown our lives on the rocks
But my good eye’s wandering still
Past the pubs where I festered all day
Transporter Bridge transport me away
He plays with pop culture but with an eye for the personal as well. “Transporter Bridge” conflates Star Trek references, but it’s also the name of an actual bridge in Newport in Wales, where he’s from.
Langford’s punk rock remains strong, so he fights the fight but with a clear sense of what’s happening. “History is written by the winner / This is a loser’s song,” he sings in The Waco Brothers’ “Hell’s Roof,” but it’s clear from the energy and fuck-you spirit of the song that there are worse things than losing.
Writer Geoffrey Himes declared Jon Dee Graham’s “Swept Away” to be the best song written about faking your own suicide, and even if the world were fuller of faux suicide songs than it is, the song would still own category. Graham’s ear for lyrical details and the emotion he can access give his songs genuine weight and beauty. “Almost Dinnertime,” a song he wrote as part of the Hobart Brothers and Lil’ Sis (with Freedy Johnston and Susan Cowsill), effortlessly, heartbreakingly showed how lost you can get, playing tag as a kid in one verse, sleeping in your car in the next. But the beauty of the harmonies in the chorus suggest that the family connections are never entirely shaken.
Graham’s emotional fearlessness is his secret power. I’ve seen shows where he wore his need for a hug like a thrift store tie, and one night at Chickie Wah Wah he sang a song with a crash landing as its metaphor that was as harrowing a four minutes as I’ve willingly spent in a bar. Then again, Graham is equally credible expressing wonder at the possibility that “Something Wonderful’s Gonna Happen,” and marveling at a “Big Sweet Life.”