This story was published previously in Chicago’s New City.
For a long time, the man born Wesley Stace was John Wesley Harding. Taking his stage name from the title Bob Dylan’s 1967 album, the singer-songwriter crafted a superb series of albums. Those releases covered a great deal of musical territory; though 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 strong knack for memorable words and music.
His debut was 1988’s It Happened One Night, a one-man live performance featuring 17 songs. Harding’s lyrics and delivery combined intelligence and cleverness delivered in a warm, intimate and impassioned style. The performance features several 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 a lyrics; highlights include the impossibly witty “The Devil in Me,” the traditionally-minded “The Red Rose and the Briar” and the rousing closing track, “Bastard Son.”
Amid 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. 1992’s Why We Fight didn’t set the charts on fire, but it contained some of Harding’s best work yet, including several songs that pack a wallop. “Kill the Messenger” and “The Truth” are as as emotionally charged as Dylan at his most fiery. But Harding has long had an optimistic streak that leavens his darker works, helping him steer clear of cynicism. The album closer, “Come Gather Round” is an uptempo tune that ranks among his best.
Harding/Stace is nothing if not prolific; he has released a number of 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 suspect: Prince, Tommy James etc. get the JWH treatment.
By the middle ’90s, Harding was releasing his music on a succession of smaller independent labels; seemingly the prospect of large-scale success had faded. But the quality of his work diminished not a bit. While he would often record and perform as a solo artist, he’d continue to return to the rock format, as showcased on a 2009 collaboration with The Minus Five titled Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. A standout track on his 2011 release, The Sound of His Own Voice 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) shows once again just what the man can do with the songs of others. Aided by an assortment of friends, the album’s 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 first 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 John Wesley Harding – or 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, a remarkable early track, “When the Beatles Hit America,” foretold the Anthology project of the ’90s, 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 unique combination of passion, humor and intelligence that mark the work of this underappreciated modern-day troubadour.