Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders at City Winery

John Wesley Harding was a wonderful singer/songwriter whose debut album delighted critics, including this one, when it came out in 1990. A handsome, literate rock star backed by Elvis Costello’s band, Harding would go on to make a dozen-plus more albums, a track record that nearly anyone would be thrilled to have produced.

But for Wesley Stace, John Wesley Harding’s recording career was just the beginning.

Wesley Stace – the man who would be John Wesley Harding, at least for his albums up until his most recent, appropriately named Self-Titled – turns out to have had a lot more up his sleeve. His fourth novel, Wonder Kid, came out earlier this year, and is likely to join his other three on various Top Ten lists. His calendar has been filled with everything from bookstore readings to university teaching: a course in songwriting, at Princeton, no less.

Wesley Stace makes John Wesley Harding look like a one-trick pony.

With so much going on – throw in some serious child-rearing as well – perhaps it is at his ongoing monthly showcase, Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders at City Winery, that the 48-year-old singer, songwriter, essayist, teacher and novelist gets to let his lengthing gray hair down and just have fun.

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Last Friday night’s edition of the show, now in its sixth year, featured Stace backed by his current band, the English UK, and hosting a handful of different musicians and creators, ranging from singer/songwriters like Brooklyn-based Nicole Atkins and alt.rock veteran Chris Stamey (pictured) to visual artists Chip Kidd and Emily Flake.

The tone was casual and convivial, set immediately by Stace with his mock-poetic introductions of each “wonder” in his “cabinet.” He then set each loose to find his or her way through a few songs – or visual pieces, displayed via Power Point, which Stace acknowledged as a first for the Cabinet – with help from Stace, the English UK, and encouragement from an enthusiastic, packed house.

Stace himself played a charming new song that displayed his continued growth as a songwriter, “We Will Always Have New York,” then harkened back to the ‘60s with an instantly-recognisable cover of the James Bond theme song, “You Only Live Twice,” an expansive reading that took the sheen off the orchestrated, Nancy Sinatra-sung original from 1967, and made it new.

Would that it had been sung by Nicole Atkins, the evening’s most delightful singer, who seems to have been born to sing such torchy, powerful pop songs. Instead she did a new song, “Country Was,” a singalong that fit the casual air of the hoot-like circumstances, but which left me craving more of her remarkable voice. That girl can sing.

Still, such moments are in the casual nature of the Cabinet, and it was in the unexpected moments from its “wonders” that make the show special: Singer/songwriter Erin McKeown played the first guest set, her electric guitar playing driving a unique voice and animated worldview; The New Yorker’s Emily Flake drew guffaws, gasps and groans with her Power Point display of her humiliations-of-pregnancy cartoons; Chris Stamey, of the long-ago power pop band The dBs, honored Stace’s request for his 1977 indie pop classic, “Summer Sun”; and book designer Chip Kidd told a funny shaggy dog story about designing covers for Augusten Burroughs books.

Stace read from Wonder Kid and told some always-wonderful drummer jokes, while he and Atkins climaxed the show with a gorgeous cover of The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe,” and Western Massachusetts-based singer songwriter Stephen Kellogg pushed hard on his heartfelt songs, and matched his passionate singing with a comment that might have summed up the whole evening:

“One of the great things about this art life is you get to keep good company.”

 

The May 17 edition of Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders will feature, among others, keyboardist Ian McLagen of sixties/seventies classic rockers the Faces. Tickets are available at the City Winery website.

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