Both Paul Burch and The Waco Brothers’ Jon Langford are roots-music devotees who’ve spent their careers writing and recording songs that decode and recode the classics of folk, country, and mid-20th-century pop. But working in collaboration on the album Great Chicago Fire, Burch and Langford have given themselves license to hang loose. They open the album with the title track, which begins by paraphrasing Johnny Rotten—“Did you ever get the feeling that you’ve been cheated?”—over a loose copy of the riff from T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy.” Clearly, somebody rang the bell for recess.
Elsewhere on Great Chicago Fire, Burch and The Waco Brothers channel the Exile On Main St.-era Rolling Stones on the intro to “Monterey,” ape Highway 61-era Bob Dylan on “Cannonball,” and bring a heavy dose of David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie” to their cover of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” None of this is all that unusual for Langford, who with his influential punk band The Mekons as well as with the Wacos has openly courted disreputability plenty of times. But Burch is known for his tastefully twangy, cleverly conceptual singer-songwriter albums, which makes it a rare treat to hear his affected drawl over music this raucous and seemingly off-the-cuff.
Burch and the Wacos don’t set their country sides aside. Most of the songs on The Great Chicago Fire are fundamentally C&W—just with more of a Lower-Broadway-after-midnight vibe than early-evening-at-the-Ryman. And Burch doesn’t take lead on every song, either. There’s a mix of voices here to match the mix of styles. The overall feel is of skilled vets taking a break to play around, tossing out ideas for barroom jams and wild mash-ups and then daring themselves to bring them to life. They don’t get too crazy, because they’re always aware that a single moment of carelessness can burn everything down. But they also seem to realize that sometimes a roaring blaze can be pretty, and can clear a space for something new.