It took Gary Louris 20 years, but with the recent release of Vagabonds, the prolific Jayhawks singer-guitarist has finally made a solo statement. Unsurprisingly, Louris dips into Gram Parsons-influenced country-rock, which for much of their existence was the Jayhawks' bread and butter. What is a surprise is that beautifully recorded alt-twangers like "She Only Calls Me on Sunday," with its lugubrious peels of pedal steel and Emmylous Harris-style reinforcing vocals, don't represent the high point of Vagabonds.
Louris proves to be a very strong pop songwriter here, a talent that he began to exploit on later Jayhawks efforts like Smile and Rainy Day Music. The wistful, echo-enhanced vocals and synth atmospherics on the epochal pop meditation "Black Grass" is a very respectable hybrid of the psychedelicized Beatles and '70s singer-songwriter fare. The sweeter "To Die a Happy Man" has a bit of Swinging London about it, too, although the chorus conjures the pursed-lipped enunciation of Paul Simon. Meanwhile, despite some keening, Crosby Stills Nash & Young-quality vocal harmonies, "I Wanna Get High" is a highly arranged tempest of brooding organ, cymbal crashes and distorted rhythm guitar. All three are the sort of multifaceted tunes that youthful songwriters can't quite muster.
Some critics have pegged Vagabonds as a bit of a downer, and it's true that Louris flavors the gray and black side of the palette over bright colors. But if his traveling band is up to the task, you can imagine the Minneapolis mainstay putting on the kind of live show that conjures everything from depression and spiritual desiccation to the promise of renewal within its dramatic arc.
Openers the Mekons are a well-known quantity in these parts, although their visits haven't been so frequent since the turn of the millennium. Punks who grew up smart and full of vinegar? Ironical Hank Williams addicts with a soft spot for the music of the Caribbean, political broadsides and trad-folk sentimentality? It's hard to know where to place the 30-year-old English band on the rock 'n' roll spectrum. But it's a dead certainty that the irrepressible Jon Langford will be the life of the party, the sweet-voiced Sally Timms will have some brilliantly tart remarks for her admirers, and the entire aggregation will transform the Barrymore into the most subversive campfire song circle you've ever attended.