BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Try shepherding a sheep along Chicago’s potholed-streets, and it becomes very clear: The broken streets of this city and the beatific Scottish Highlands are worlds apart.
However, a combined group of musicians from Chicago and theater makers from Scotland are continuing a creative dialogue that started three years ago: In August, country music songwriter Robbie Fulks, along with Sally Timms and Jon Langford of the Mekons, will embark to rural Scotland to play a series of shows throughout remote parts of Scotland. The reason, explains Timms, is elementary:
“We’re adventurous. That’s the idea. We like adventures,” she says.
On Sunday, July 13, Fulks, Timms, Langford, among others, will headline a show at the Hideout in Chicago to raise money for their travels. Billed as “Hideout in the Highlands,” the six-date tour spans Aug. 9-19 and will include recording sessions for a new album featuring all three, along with other members of the Mekons who live elsewhere in the world and are included in the traveling musical caravan: violinist Susie Honeyman, accordionist/vocalist Rico Bell and guitarist Lu Edmonds. The venues range from the Belladrum Festival, where the group will share a bill along with Tom Jones, Frightened Rabbit, Billy Bragg, and others, and the tiny village hall of Stromness, located on the remote island of Orkney.
The endeavor originated three years ago in the Hideout, the music room tucked inside the Elston Avenue industrial corridor where Fulks hosts a Monday residency and where Timms and Langford perform regularly. There, members of The National Theatre of Scotland stopped by for a drink in 2011 while collaborating on a production in town with Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Inspired by the space, they decided to return the next year to produce “Long Gone Lonesome,” a play by Scottish writer Duncan McLean, over a weekend at the Hideout.
“It seemed like the ideal place for my band to play and the show to be staged,” McLean said by email from his home in Orkney. “This was partly because The Hideout seemed to host a marvelous mix of music – country, blues, gospel, punk – a very similar mix” to the music of Thomas Fraser, the play’s real life protagonist. Fraser, a fisherman from the remote island of Burra, Shetland, recorded his own versions of American country and blues songs before his death in 1978.
McLean says he was already a long-standing fan of the Mekons, the Leeds art-punk band that continues to record and perform after three decades, with its members based in Chicago, London, and elsewhere. The band’s inaugural single, “Never Been in a Riot” — a response to the Clash song “White Riot” — was a seminal purchase, he says: “The fact that the music sounded like a wardrobe full of electric guitars falling down a steep staircase only added to the appeal.”
Timms says McLean helped organize the tour, which will include a three-day recording session at Sound of Jura, an island studio on the isle of the same name. Fulks and the Mekons plan to release the album on Chicago’s Bloodshot label under the band name, “Mini-Mekons.”
The Sunday fundraiser will feature Fulks playing solo, and then joining in on Mekons songs with Timms and Langford. Fueling their trip are independent Chicago businesses: Besides donations from Bloodshot, the Hideout, and Lagunitas Brewing Company, a silent auction will feature a private whiskey tasting by Mike Miller, owner of Delilah’s on Lincoln Avenue. And yes, haggis is on the menu.
Timms says grassroots organizing has always been central to the survival of the Mekons. “We make it work somehow, we’re very resilient,” she says. “We think, ‘if this doesn’t work, we’ll make it work’.”
Creatively, the musical exchange across the Atlantic is a natural one, with elements of Scottish and British folk music feeding into American folk music, and back again. How the Mekons mixed country, punk, and English folk music in the 1980s was a forbearer to the alt-country revival a decade later. McLean says the portraits of small town America on “Gone Away Backward” (Bloodshot), the latest Fulks album, “is one of the greatest pieces of writing I’ve come across in any media,” and compares it to Midwestern classics “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson and “Raintree County” by Ross Lockridge, Jr.
As for future collaborations with his Chicago cohorts, McLean can only speculate:
“No plans at the moment, but who knows what will come out of the visit this August?”