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The Chicago Takeover

Riding Into Inauguration Day On Big Shoulders

John Ryan
Jon Langford celebrates in the Green Room at the Black Cat.

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 1/28/2009

Flags from the Colonial era and the city of Chicago hang behind the stage of Washington's Black Cat on the eve of President Barack Obama's inauguration. Plastic stars-and-stripes pennants dangle from the ceiling, waving gently in the moist heat. Men in tuxedos mingle with those in varying states of retro and Western thrift-store chic, as women in tiaras and ball gowns and skinny-leg jeans sway to the music.

The club has mostly cleared out, but that doesn't stop a lanky hipster in a butterscotch colored Nudie suit and Stetson from twirling his dance partner in her electric blue gown to the Mekons' "Hard to be Human Again." This is the Big Shoulders Ball, and if you don't get that, then you obviously aren't from the Midwest.

The song, performed by Eleventh Dream Day, joined by the Mekons' Jon Langford and Sally Timms, caps off a Chicago-centric lineup that has included spirited readings from Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas?, and barely coherent ranting from a guy named Tim Tuten, a sponsor of the event. While the eyes of the world may be focused the next day on Washington, performers and promoters alike seem to feel that the Windy City is now the center of the universe.

Billed as "a celebration of citizen politics, independent music and Windy City civic pride," the $50-a-head event included the dulcet tones of Andrew Bird, postrock titan Tortoise, and bluesman David "Honeyboy" Edwards, among others. Presented by Chicago music venue the Hideout, which Tuten co-owns, and grassroots organizers Interchange, the Big Shoulders Ball also is raising money for the Future of Music Coalition and Chicago Public Schools marching bands.

Shortly before he rips into the union anthem "Solidarity Forever," Langford introduces Tuten as "the next lieutenant governor of Illinois." Tuten then introduces author Thomas Frank, a man, he says, "who knows who we are."

Frank starts with the Obama analogies: "I have roots in Kansas and came to Hyde Park, just like Obama. And just like Obama I ate at the Dixie Kitchen and cursed Mayor Richard Daley and wrote a couple of books--I even palled around with terrorists."

He describes Chicago as "a working man's town of great unpretentiousness, not vain like L.A. or New York--the perfect city." He declares, "The public has had it with bullshit authenticity. We don't want twangy talkin' Marlboro men right now."

Getting back to the matters at hand, he adds, "We need a real Midwestern band, a band that knows how to get things done." Enter the Waco Brothers.

Led by Langford, an expat Welshman who moved to Chicago in 1992, the Waco Brothers are a guitar-slinging, high-kicking country rock outfit with a violinist. They record for Bloodshot Records, an "insurgent country" label out of--where else--Chicago, that flies the mantra of Baltimore's H.L. Mencken: "There comes a time when every man feels the urge to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and start slitting throats."

"This is no exorcism, this is rock 'n roll," Langford snarls between songs. He's speaking, of course, about the looming end of the Bush Administration, which inspired the title of the band's 2005 album Freedom and Weep. Yet he sarcastically refers to the Waco Brothers as a "cozy, state-of-the-art bum-licking no-protest band."

He and his comrades drove 15 hours to get here. Now that Obama has gone from being a South Side Chicago community organizer to the most powerful man in the world, they are in no hurry to leave. "We've come to take over," he says before launching into covers of "Big River" and "I Fought the Law." "We're never going back."

Backstage after the show the dressing room is littered with empty bottles of 3-1-2 Urban Wheat Ale and hunks of cheese. The bus is leaving soon, but Langford stops to offer a few thoughts.

He says the last eight years have been good for artists who are into writing "depressing, apocalyptic, anti-government songs." He says the Bush years were so morally bankrupt that they "coalesced into someone like Obama getting elected--it got so bad people gave up being apathetic and cynical."

Langford is an original punk rocker and he believes the tag of nihilism that sticks to that era is misplaced. "It was hopeful, it was about taking something back," he says. Now that Obama is in power, however, he harbors no illusions. "I don't think the world is suddenly going to become perfect and we're not going have anything to write about," he says. "The world is fucking shit. But I believe Obama is possibly on our side, so we'll see what happens. He's not in charge of everything."

Above all, Langford and the rest of the Big Shoulders contingent see the nascent Obama presidency in uniquely Chicagoan terms. "He's the most hopeful politician of fucking several generations after the most corrupt politician of several generations," he says. "Nobody can compare to Chicago at the moment."

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More from Jeffrey Anderson

Last Word (4/29/2009)
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Q&A: Inaugration Eve with Jon Langford (and his bodyguard) (1/30/2009)

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