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IN WITH THE NEW

John Wesley Harding and the English UK/Riverside Gardens Park, Red Bank, N.J./July 24, 2009

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On his new track “Top of the Bottom,” British singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding offers a tongue-in-cheek , mostly farcical chronology of his career’s ups and downs. A true-to-life version of it would have to mention that with his current release, Harding is re-emerging from the longest break of his two-decade recording career.

The song comes from Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, Harding’s ninth studio album and his first since 2004’s little-noticed Adam’s Apple (after which he essentially took a breather from the music biz and published a couple of novels under his real name, Wesley Stace). And judging by the set list as well as his clear enthusiasm for the new material on this night, he quite evidently is glad to be back.

Backed by three youngish-looking lads billed as the English UK, Harding jammed a whopping 10 selections from the new CD into his 85-minute set at Riverside Gardens Park in Red Bank, N.J., continuing to roll them out and shun his more familiar music even as the show’s curfew approached and a potential rainstorm threatened to cut his performance short (rain never did arrive, but the sound engineer intently monitored a weather map on his laptop computer during the entire show).

Perhaps because this marked a rare occasion when the singer was supported by a full band, Harding proudly announced he had “never played this song live before” in introducing the downcast “A Very Sorry Saint,” the only song that found him guitar-less, as he instead put all his energy into singing and gesticulating, even taking an impromptu trip into the crowd briefly.

But the calculated emphasis on the freshly minted tunes, which are markedly more contemplative and slower in tempo than his earlier, more snarky work, resulted in segments of the audience all but drifting off in their lawn chairs on such a cool, comfortable summer night, until he finally delivered on his earlier promise to “rock” late in the show. Harding took his time in honoring that pledge — and finally drawing upon his deep catalog — as one long hour into the show, “The Person You Are” (a bouncy number from 1991 that closed the main set) represented the evening’s first cut not culled from Harding’s two most recent albums.

To that point, Harding’s wit and charm, whether expressed through his lyrics or in his playful, somewhat sarcastic exchanges with the crowd, mostly compensated for whatever he and his band lacked in volume and vigor. He offered dark ruminations in the show-opening “My Favourite Angel,” showcased his tender side on the breezy, organ-aided “Love or Nothing” and engaged in his trademark jocularity (as the title suggests) with “Congratulations (On Your Hallucinations).”

But Harding’s asides and bon mots, delivered with detached sarcasm and a faux-pomposity (or is it just the thick British accent?) were just as notable. Only an experienced stage banterer with great comedic timing could state that his hometown in England is “just like Red Bank, only nicer” and sound endearing, and somehow elicit hearty laughter with a rant about ’90s relic Garth Brooks and his “stupid shirts.”

Still, the music was what the 400 or so people came for, and when Wes and Co. at long last cut loose during the encore with an uproarious cover of Wreckless Eric’s punk-era gem “Whole Wide World,” the crowd finally was nearly as excited to be there as he was.

— By George Henn