Choir Starter

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Jon Langford
Sept. 17, Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard St. (betw. B’way & Church St.), 212-219-3132; 7 pm, $15.

Last Wednesday Jon Langford sat peacefully in Revere Park, in his adopted hometown of Chicago, and watched his children play. It’s safe to say that most of the soccer moms sitting near him didn’t realize that the affable, handsome, silver-haired father was actually a punk. One of the original punks, in fact. Back in the day—1977 to be exact—while at the University of Leeds, Langford formed the Mekons: a band that made a lo-fi racket sprang from the same scene that gave us Gang of Four. Over time, however, the band’s style evolved and shifted from punk into everything-but-the-kitchen-sink. Thirty years later the Mekons, Langford says, is currently “resting.” But its founder is busier than ever.

When he’s not painting folk portraits of country legends like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, or hosting his local radio show, or contributing to NPR’s This American Life, Langford, who is considered by many to be the godfather of the Chicago underground, is still making music. When I talked to him last week, he had just returned from a West Texas tour with his Pine Valley Cosmonauts, a sort-of cover band he started in 1996 that features an ever-revolving lineup of Windy City locals. Before that Langford had been in Norway. There he had an art exhibition and played a few “noisy, guitar-heavy” festival sets with his Norwegian band. All of this after a very busy summer on the road with yet another band he founded, The Waco Brothers—an alt-country-punk outfit that embodies the genre-fusing for which Langford is known.

“And now I’ve found yet another thing to do which is almost impossible to make any money out of,” he laughs. He’s talking, in a jolly expatriated accent, about his ongoing collaboration with the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, with which he will be playing Wednesday night at the Knitting Factory.

In addition to some Welsh traditionals and a few Tom Jones covers, Langford and the choir will perform songs from his first official solo album, 1998’s Skull Orchard.

The songs were all written in homage to South Wales, where Langford grew up. “Skull Orchard kind of fizzled rather quickly when it came out,” Langford says, “as the record company didn’t have any distribution to put it out. So I got the rights back to it and decided to revive it once I started working with the choir. All the songs are just perfect for having 50 large Welshmen doing four-part harmonies in the background.”

Wait—50 large Welshmen? “Yeah, a lot of them are merchant seamen, sailors or rugby players. They’re guys who left Wales to look for better times and ended up in Canada.” Langford, who has played with the BWMC only five times previously, scheduled this week’s gig when he saw that the choir was on tour and coming through New York. (The BWMC sings Tuesday night as part of a “400 Voices” Celtic celebration at Carnegie Hall.)

Choral societies like these, Langford says, are custom in his home country. “Basically every village in Wales has a boys’ choir. It comes from the tradition of coal miners—there wasn’t much else to do so they’d form choirs. You might think it’d sound like a brutal, noisy, football-type chant, but actually it’s really delicate. It can be very light, and very ethereal. And it’s dramatic too. I’ll be playing a song on acoustic guitar, or just singing, and they’ll come in behind me, and I don’t know, it’s pretty emotional. At least it is for me.”

After Langford plays with the chorus, he’ll come back out for a much different second set—a stripped down duo with Katherina Ex, the polyrhythmic drummer from the pioneering Dutch rockers The Ex. I ask why the chorus isn’t going on after the duo, instead of the other way around. “Well, some of these guys are in their late 70s,” Langford explains. “And we’ll want to get them on early and not go too late, you know, because they like to have a drink after they’ve played.”

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