Cowboys in flames: 10-years of the Waco Brothers

By Mark Guarino

Rock bands are formed for any number of reasons but in the past few years the least likely reason is because someone is upset.
Since the internet boom, the economic upswing that followed, the flourish of patriotic fervor that accompanied the invasion of Iraq and the dominance of corporate deregulation, rock bands seem to have a full palate of grievances to pick apart for ideas, yet these days, danger is chiefly expressed through the hue of their latest tattoo.
Certainly, the mainstream of the past 10 years has not been a place where any real noise has been made. Rap metal, the teenage divas, gangster rap and the introspective ballads of Coldplay all make a point of blanket ambiguity and if agitation is ever expressed, it is a fleeting pose. But even on the independent level, bands are more likely to get excited by their own personal visions than newspaper headlines. Nostalgia is the chief inspiration, particularly the British New Wave era. Pop punk has the energy, but the bands seem too conscious of fashion and the beats all sound the same. Green Day, the godfathers of the current movement, received universal praise for taking a political stance on their latest album, “American Idiot” (Warner Bros.), but besides the title song, what follows is consciously not specific.
Clearly, bands on both levels, top to bottom, are not hungry as they once were. A turning point came when Puddle of Mudd replaced Nirvana the radio and grunge — the last organic evolution in rock — become codified. The desire to please corporate parents and cash in as quick as possible are today clear motivators for bands growing up in a time where celebrities are instant and fame is gotten on the cheap. The result is a musical climate that continues to offer thrills and drama, but is a mask hiding an underlying cultural boredom.
There is a reason why current reunion tours by the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Mission to Burma and other underground bands from 20-plus years ago are doing so well. In the ‘80s, bands formed because there was a genuine detachment from the mainstream so forming a band was a stroke of rebellion. “When I started it was because I hated the world and I wanted to change it and make something that I liked better,” Bob Mould, the revered frontman for the ‘80s punk band Husker Du, told me in conversation this week. “Now maybe, it’s to not work at Kinko’s.”
For all these reasons, I’ve come to appreciate the Waco Brothers more and more. Hearing their successive albums over the last 10 years — including their newest, “Freedom and Weep” (Bloodshot) — and checking out their live shows, I’m continually inspired and reminded of the blue collar disenchantment that fuels great songwriting and the us-versus-them attitude that is necessary to deepen the stakes. While the six members regularly play up their role as merry pranksters onstage and their frequent bookings around town makes it easy to take them for granted, the Chicago band is responsible for a body of work that stands as prime working man’s rock — accessible, vehement and rooted to the universal theme of corruptive power.
There’s little pretense in the presentation, a corner bar aesthetic that was set in stone from the beginning. The Wacos were originally a stepping out from the Mekons, the genre-hopping British art punk collective that has been making albums since 1977. Core members Jon Langford (guitar) and Steve Goulding (drums) relocated to Chicago around the same time the band started getting interested in American country music starting with Hank Williams and ending with the outlaw period of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Once settled, the Wacos were formed as a side project to pay strict reverence to the music. Their first two albums, “…To the Last Dead Cowboy” (1995) and “Cowboy in Flames” (1997), confront country music’s past with punk intensity. But nothing the Wacos do can be considered a straight homage. Instead, the band directly plugs into the traits that made early country music an outlet for the frustrations of white working class America, qualities that were long rubbed out and forgotten by the Nashville mainstream. With the Waco’s resurrection of iconic symbols (cowboys, trains) and themes (death trips, drinking, demons, deceit) and by dosing them with pirate humor, they helped reinvent a new vocabulary for both country music traditionalists and new generation punks.
What makes the band a force to behold live is their refusal of subtlety. With three lead singers, a three-guitar line-up and a punk rock rhythm section (featuring former Jesus Jones bassist Alan Doughty), the band commits at a high level and rarely relents. On “Freedom and Weep,” the band’s sixth album in 10 years, the payoff is that gang-oriented line of attack. The obvious target is the current presidential administration, referenced indirectly. On “Lincoln Town Car,” vocalist-songwriter Dean Schlabowske sings of watching a presidential motorcade: “that’s the pride of Detroit, the pride of workers/that keeps you warm and keeps you safe.”
Schlabowske, a veteran of Chicago’s noise scene from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, has a voice that can both growl with fury and break with anguish. Along with Langford’s snarling brogue and the teen idol croon of mandolin player Tracy Dear, the inflection of these songs go through many layers that continually grind with discontent. Schlabowske’s voice sounds spooked on the ghost rocker “Nothing At All” that asks, “what if our history means nothing at all?” On “Missing Link,” Langford embodies the broken culture: “I came in pieces and parts/but you put me back together wrong,” he sings.
The pedal steel guitar playing of Mark Durante casts hazy shadows even as songs charge forward trying to escape. The Waco’s continuing asset is the sense that they are on a chase, connecting the past with the current main street of outlaws and thieves. As cowboys, they are more Butch and Sundance than John Wayne and Gary Cooper: anti-heroes who realize that these days, a white hat does not necessarily mean you’re on the right side.

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