The Griffin Pub, Reading
Almost a quarter of a century ago I found myself working on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Back in 1992, an era before music became free, cassettes were expensive. However, in Indonesia quasi-legal version of major-labels’ albums on cassette, complete with inlay cards, sold for a tenth of the price of their western equivalents. My weekly visit to the local cassette emporium not only allowed me to purchase the complete works of artists such as Van Morrison and Neil Young, but also to acquaint myself with new ones, safe in the knowledge that each album only cost £1. One Friday the red spine of a cassette box entitled “Here Comes The Groom” caught my eye. It turned out to be the first studio recording by a young chap using the moniker John Wesley Harding, a stage name adopted by the singer-song writer Wesley Stace. Together with “Automatic For The People” it became a firm favourite on the deck of my Toyota Landcruiser whilst driving around the irrigation schemes of Lombok.
In 1993 I returned to the UK just in time for a rare appearance of John Wesley Harding, or Wes as he refers to himself, at Camden Dingwalls. Although English, Wes has spent the past 25 years living in the United States. He’s become one of my favourite songwriters and live performers, thanks to his razor sharp wit. However, British gigs are few and far between. Around 15 years ago, having spotted his email address on an album sleeve, I sent Wes a message which, to my surprise, he responded to almost immediately. Since then I’ve emailed him periodically. My messages are usually centred around three perennial questions: “When’s your new album coming out?”; “Are you doing a UK tour anytime soon?”; “Can you play Reading?” He’s always good enough to respond to these banal missives, although there’s rarely a positively answer to question two and never one to question number three!
Back in 2009 Wes started curating his “Cabinet Of Wonders” events in New York. These are variety shows at which Wes acts as master of ceremonies and comprise a melange of musicians, comedians and novelists Artists such as Rosanne Cash, Laura Cantrell, Steve Earle, The Waterboys and Salman Rushdie, to name but a few, have made appearances. Having brought the “Cabinet Of Wonders” successfully over to London in 2015, Wes had scheduled another Cabinet featuring The Strawbs, Nina Persson, Rupert Thomson and Alex Taylor in late November 2016. Two months before this Cabinet the inevitable three questions winged their way to Wes. However, this time question three was answered in the affirmative and I found myself thrust into the role of “promoter” for a small invitation only gig in the upstairs room of a pub in Reading.
For the gig, Wes brought along with him his old university friend David Lewis, who has combined a career as a professor at the London School of Economics with one as a songwriter and performer. He’s co-written a number of songs with Wes and released four solo albums. David opened the show with a five song set with Wes on lead guitar, that culminated in “The Black Pig”, which relates the tale of the over the top funeral of a farmer’s prized swine.
Wes commenced with a couple of numbers from his forthcoming album with the Jayhawks which is out early next year. Despite the events of the previous fortnight we get a rendition of Wes’s re-write of a Dylan classic, “Mr Tangerine Man”, which commences: “Hey, Mr Tangerine Man; What’s that on your head?; Is it alive or is it dead?; Do you keep it on in bed?; How often is it fed?; We’re dying for a peek; To see what’s under it”. Unfortunately the final lines, “But on a mid-November morning; No one’s following you”, did not prove to be prophetic. The fun continued with “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used To Be)”, “I Can’t Make Love To Bob Dylan” and “The Ballad Of Jason Bourne”, the latter set to the tune of Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd”. However, it would be wrong to conclude that Wes’s songs are all tongue in cheek japeries. The poignancy of love are beautifully described in “We Will Always Have New York” and “A Canterbury Kiss”.
David Lewis re-joined Wes on backing vocals for the final five songs which included Springsteen’s “Wreck On The Highway”. It was fitting that the gig ended with them playing “Three Legged Man”, a suitably comedic tale of the stealing not only of a wife but her husband’s wooden leg. The song was played at one of Wes’s first gigs almost 28 years ago to the day and it bookended the evening nicely. It was also fitting that Wes and David were happy to stay and chat to the audience before making their way back to West London.
Thirty of so of my friends and about a dozen other people who’d replied to a tweet by Wes alerting them to the gig, including someone who’d travelled all the way from Sweden.
It made me think..
This is what gigs are all about: great performers, wonderful songs, clear sound and an attentive audience in a small room. All in all a life affirming evening and, as far as I could tell, everybody enjoyed themselves. A special and unique occasion for me. How often do you get one of you favourite songwriters coming to play a gig especially for you and your friends?