For a long time, the man born Wesley Stace was John Wesley Harding. Taking his stage name from the title of Bob Dylan’s 1967 record, the singer-songwriter crafted a superb series of albums. Those releases covered a great deal of musical territory; although he’s firmly rooted in the folk troubadour idiom, Stace/Harding is a storyteller par excellence, a witty raconteur and a winning songwriter with a knack for memorable words and music.
His debut was 1988’s “It Happened One Night,” a one-man live performance featuring seventeen songs. Harding’s lyrics and delivery combined intelligence and cleverness delivered in a warm, intimate, impassioned style. The performance features songs that would reappear—in full band arrangements—on his major-label debut, 1990’s “Here Comes the Groom.” That record hammered home the effectiveness with which Harding could craft lyrics. Highlights include the impossibly witty “The Devil in Me,” the tradition-minded “The Red Rose and the Briar” and a rousing closing track, “Bastard Son.”
Within a series of EPs came 1991’s “The Name Above the Title,” a collection of songs that equaled or bettered the debut: no sophomore slump for Harding. “Why We Fight” (1992) didn’t set the charts on fire, but it contained some of Harding’s best work, including several songs that pack a wallop. “Kill the Messenger” and “The Truth” are as emotionally charged as Dylan at his fieriest. But Harding has long had an optimistic streak that leavens his darker works, steering him clear of cynicism. The album closer, “Come Gather Round,” is an uptempo tune that ranks among his best.
Harding/Stace is prolific, releasing fan-club sets, some using the clever anagram “Dynablob.” On those—as on his regular releases—he shows that in addition to being a top-flight songwriter, he’s an inventive interpreter of the works of others. And those others aren’t always the usual suspects: Prince, Tommy James and others get the JWH treatment.
By the mid-nineties, Harding released his music on a succession of smaller independent labels. The prospect of large-scale success seemed to have faded. But the quality of his work diminished not a bit. While he would record and perform as a solo artist, he would return to the rock format, as showcased on a 2009 collaboration with The Minus Five, “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead.” A standout track on “The Sound of His Own Voice” (2011) is the wry “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be).”
His most recent release, “Greatest Other People’s Hits” (2018, Omnivore Recordings), again shows what the man can do with the songs of others. Aided by an assortment of friends, the highlights include a reading of “Satellite of Love” with its composer Lou Reed, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Jackson Cage” and a track that appeared decades ago on a Roky Erickson tribute LP, “If You Have Ghosts.”
Despite the quality of his recorded output, the best way to experience Wesley Stace—as he’s increasingly known—is live onstage. His rapport with the audience is a thing to behold, whether he has a guitar or not. His peerless emceeing of the 2012 Yep Roc 15 festival made that clear. And onstage, he adds context to his music with between-tunes banter that’s as entertaining as the songs.
Stace’s keen observational lyrics showcase his ability to, if not predict the future, then make connections others have missed. For example, an early track, “When the Beatles Hit America,” foretold the “Anthology” project of the nineties, and even predicted that Paul, George and Ringo would work with ELO’s Jeff Lynne! And another song (never officially released) explains—by citing song titles—the manner in which ABBA plotted to take over the world. Both songs are exemplars of the combination of passion, humor and intelligence that mark the work of this underappreciated modern-day troubadour.
January 31, 7pm, SPACE, 1245 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, (847)492-8860. $15 advance, $18 day of show.
With a background in marketing and advertising, Bill Kopp got his professional start writing for Trouser Press. His more than 2,500 interviews, essays, and reviews reflect Bill’s keen interest in American musical forms, most notably rock, jazz and soul. His work features a special emphasis on reissues and vinyl. Bill’s work also appears in many other outlets both online and in print. He also researches and authors liner notes for album reissues, and co-produced a reissue of jazz legend Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s final album. His first book, “Reinventing Pink Floyd,” is due from Rowman & Littlefield in February 2018.