The Mekons at the Iota

The Mekons are back out on the road in what they are calling an acoustic tour. But what that really means, they showed at the Iota in Arlington, Va., Thursday, is that drummer Steve Goulding didn’t have a set, but instead beat his percussion on a box between his legs. And everybody sat down.

“Should be an assisted living tour,” frontman Jon Langford muttered as he noticed the band was sitting and the crowd (mostly men, Sally Timms noticed) stood.

It wasn’t really such a different approach for the vintage rock band, who have been blending acoustic and electric, boroque and punk, history and progressivism throughout their long career.

The folkie strains mixed with the rocking intent brought to mind Joe Strummer and the Mescalaros. The blend of history and touch of history instead called to mind the Decemberists; the camaraderie and instrumentation echoed the Arcade Fire.

And yet the Mekons are beyond any such comparison, because they were out there doing all this way before any of the above mentioned.

And they seem to have a very good time doing so. It’s not just the lively banter between songs which pleases them even if the audience can’t always keep up, but also in the songs, as when Langford joined Rico Bell and Tom Greenhalgh to harmonize behind Timm, singing the lovely “The Letter,” away from the microphone, as music lovers at a pub might do, along with the jukebox.

You get a wide variety of musical styles with every Mekons show, because of what each member can bring to the sound. Langford has a strong tie to old country-western music and wore clothing along those lines. Timms presents the female approach to country, with a clear and supple voice well suited to ballads. Greenhalgh brings the drama and as such was the first to stand for a showcase. In his bowtie, mustache and corduroys, he looked like a history teacher  on a bender as he waved his hands expressively or did an unexpected jig.

Bell, with his accordion and kerchief, looked like he’d been snared from the Pogues, but he’s been a mainstay of the band for decades. They all have. Susie Honeyman’s violin was a key component to many songs, stinging in solos or adding heft to choruses; and Lu Edmonds played an aud-looking instrument that could have been of Eastern European origin, but stung out occasional leads like an electric guitar.

An electric guitar is precisely what Langford wielded, and his tasteful twangs here and there, especially on the one song he deigned to stand to sing, gave an air of the spare urgency of Billy Bragg.

The set rightly emphasized the tracks on the new album “Ancient & Modern,” which reflected the cultural history of the past century like a hidden text. (One of the most revealing moments in Chris Gains’ Mills’ solid opening set was recalling seeing the Mekon copy out of history books because they had no songs prepared for their trip to the studio the next day). “Honey Bear,” Calling All Demons,” “I Fall Asleep” are all strong additions to a set (though they didn’t sing a song with local ties, “Ugly Bethesda”).

There was no shortage of old songs to play, from recordings that date back to 1979. So they did the Eastern-tinged “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem” “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian” and “Hole in the Ground.”

It ended in an encore with requests for songs they’d already been doing in encores anyway: “Wild and Blue,” “Hard to Be Human” as well as “Shanty” and “Heaven and Back.”

It was a great show enhanced by the intimate surroundings; any bigger a place, and nobody could see them sitting down anyhow.

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