Even people of wildly different political species can agree that what U.S. federal forces did at the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Tex., on April 19, 1993, came as a supersized cup of rancid faith from the then-fresh Clinton administration.
Outrage simmered as infrared evidence seemed to confirm that tanks and agents had fired on the compound with children still inside, and signs of a cover-up mounted -- whatever you thought of armed-to-the-eyeteeth messianic fanatics erecting play-forts in the desert. (Look forward to the parade of wacko actions likely to greet the 10th anniversary this year.)
The stench of those 70-plus charred bodies was still thick in the air when Welsh-British punk veteran Jon Langford of the Mekons gathered a band of mirthfully malicious men in Chicago in 1995, appointed them a country-rock band, and called them the Waco Brothers.
A little earlier, the band might have been the Ollie Northerners; and this year, the Baghdad Boys. The name is one of those nods to life outside the fantasy land of music-making that were once common in punk (my own high-school band flubbed its chords as the Klaus Barbie Dolls), now mostly gone extinct due to apathy or disillusion or the dynasty of Nintendo GameCubes.
The Wacos, though, are still following through. This is what happen with nearly everything the profligate, prolific Langford touches - most recently the Wacos' sixth album, New Deal, last year's knock-down-drag-out Mekons disc OOOH!, and his new collaboration with Toronto band the Sadies, Mayors of the Moon, the best thing the local spaghetti-western-surf-rock band has ever committed to aluminum. (The Wacos make a very rare appearance in Toronto on Monday Jan. 27, along with the Langford/Sadies project, to celebrate the 55th birthday of the Horseshoe Tavern, 370 Queen St. West, $12.)
His singing can wobble, and his tunes have followed the same four-chord patterns for two decades, but that real-world radar of Langford's - whether his reach is global or just as far as the bar - gets him past his flaws. His work is always pointing beyond itself, sometimes in accusation, sometimes just to shout, "Hey! Take a look over there! Or under the carpet! Or in your own eyes!" And usually he adds, "So what do you think that is, anyway?"
Langford is no literalist. Lately, I'm touched less by single tracks than by the way he unfurls song after song, abstract but urgent, inked up with tattoos and bruises. Take this fragment from one with the Sadies, Up to My Neck in This: "Tried to shape myself/ Into everything you hate/ Everywhere you look, I'm going to be/ In every turn you take." It's a threat, but a mournful kind of one - is it directed at a politician, lover or cop? These anarchies run deep.
What raises them up isn't the particulars of his politics so much as the way he body-Englishes principle into passion, and integrates humour with a snort of disgust, which the other five Wacos launch on their melody rockets (though the flight tends to falter when it's not his voice at the helm).
Unlike other motor-mouths who've pontificated from stage, page or saloon chair about punk and country as comparable white working-class musics, Langford deploys that insight as his instrument: He doesn't blend the genres to make a point about music history or cool imagery, but to get the sound that fits his sympathies.
Even when he's repetitive, that's firmer foundation than three-quarters of the other, sloppy "insurgent country" acts on Chicago's Bloodshot Records can claim (viz. the new label compilation, Making Singles, Drinking Doubles).
Caring so much for the unknown that lies past the lip of the stage - whether in the audience or a long way out the door - may also be what's earned the Wacos so many people's votes as America's best live bar band. You don't manage that just by studious method acting. Their annual set at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., has become the rock'n'twang version of High Mass, complete with sacramental wine, or beer, or tequila.
Though they certainly have honky tonk in their hearts, the bleeding spine of the Wacos' sound makes them the Joe Strummer tribute band we did not know, seven years ago, we would need so soon. If the Clash were the "only band that mattered" (as so many eulogies of the late singer reminded us in the past month), the Wacos sometime seem the only band to recall what that matter was -- furious scrutiny, not just a guitar sound and a snarl.
As they sing on New Deal, the Brothers' counteroffer to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is "Alcohol, freedom and a country song." Lately, freedom has been a treacherous word, in an America that a decade after Waco still has itself under several kinds of siege. But Langford can keep a cockeyed bead on it, if anyone can.