Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fantastic John Wesley Harding!

I headed back from Washington on Monday afternoon, killed a few hours at my apartment and then met up with Allan outside of Union Hall, a lovely little Park Slope pub with two indoor bocce courts and an intimate downstairs performance space. We got in the line and watched satisfied customers from the first show file past us, then we grabbed ourselves a couple of Modelo Especials (con limones) and settled into some semi-comfortable seats in the second row.

And then we waited for a while for John Wesley Harding's Medicine Show to start.

It had been a while since I had seen Wes. As of late, he has been concentrating his artistic efforts in the literature realm and not the musical realm. (Under his birth name, Wesley Stace, he has written two novels, Misfortune and By George. My mother read Misfortune and really enjoyed it. The comments on By George on Wes's Wikipedia entry are a little harsh: "it was widely considered to be cacophonously bad.") But I went through a phase in 2002-2003, where I saw him probably a half-dozen times in half-a-year, and I'll definitely catch myself singing one song or another of his in any given week.

Screwball comic Eugene Mirman came out to warm us up semi-briefly. When he asked how we were all doing, and I told him that I had had a beer, he said that it was good that we had all shown up with such high expectations for the show. He told a hilarious story about his gas bill, reading out loud the letter that he allegedly wrote to the gas company about the fact that they had been sending his bill to the wrong address for several years. I waited and waited for the expected introduction -- "Ladies and gentlement, the fantastic John Wesley Harding!" -- that is the trumpet fanfare that begins Wes's first album, It Happened One Night, but that wasn't the way it would go down. Instead Wes just kind of took the stage.

JWH had two sidemen with him: Robert Lloyd, who has accompanied JWH for 18 years (including nearly all of the times that I've seen him) on mandolin and accordion and other instruments, and Chris Von Sneidern on 12-string guitar. They played well together with Robert's mandolin providing able solos and lovely fills throughout the night, and Chris supplying some decent vocal harmonies and some rock 'n' roll groove on a few tunes.

After only a few songs, Wes called for a large cup of Maker's Mark. It was delivered, and by the end of the set -- he had been playing music for almost four hours -- things were getting a little loose, but only in a good way. The fact that this was a recording for a live CD/DVD didn't seem to bother him too much. (Well, there was maybe a little bit of anxiousness when someone from the crew informed him that maybe they weren't exactly recording everything...)

The stage was decorated with a painted backdrop from 1991 -- JWH had taken it around on tour with him, yet the road manager always said that it wouldn't fit in the club -- a bust of Groucho Marx and a taxidermy statue signed on the bottom by the sculptor, Dr. Strangeballs.

The show was about playing hits -- fan favorites that people request and Wes sometimes doesn't play -- and for me, it was a terrific show, as I knew every single song in the set -- although I could recognize some quicker than others, I'll admit -- and I could just sit back and enjoy. (Of course, if I'd had my way, "Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Steve Goodman, David Blue and Me" would have made the list, too, but you can't hit them all.)

Wes's banter was solid and relatively brief. His comment on the upcoming election was a non-comment: 'Look, I'm not like some Billy Bragg character who comes over here, tells you what to do and then f*cks off home for the summer.'

With some special guests and a lot of energy, it was all-in-all a solid evening of music. For me, it was a homecoming to a lot of songs that I know pretty well, and for Allan, it was his first exposure to these same songs. And I think we both walked away satisfied.

The set went like this:

  • "Kiss Me, Miss Liberty"

  • "The Person You Are"

  • "The People's Drug"

  • "Still Photo"

  • "Sussex Ghost Story" - JWH solo

  • "July 13, 1985" - 'This is probably the last time I'll ever play this song.'; also solo

  • "Cupid and Psycho" - with Robert Lloyd only

  • "Negative Love" - with Chris on guitar and Deni Bonet (who was sitting next to me in the audience) on fiddle; great job on this one -- it's the one I've been singing since Monday

  • "Monkey and His Cat" - with Deni Bonet only

  • "Kill the Messenger"

  • "Space Cowgirl" - a song that apparently was inspired by Roseanne Cash's "Seven Year Ache"

  • "The Truth"

  • "Our Lady of the Highway" - with Josh Ritter singing the second verse and on the chorus; great song and great to see Josh Ritter

  • "Save a Little Room for Me" - lots of energy

  • "Windowseat" - rockin' intro from JWH and CVS

  • ENCORE: "Hamlet" - JWH solo

  • CVS sang his own "Summertime Sun" solo

  • "Devil in Me" - good enough to wait for

  • Neil Young's "Star of Bethlehem" to close the show

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