John Wesley Harding
By Sander Wolf
John Wesley Harding is a bit nervous. The singer-songwriter who can simultaneously battle and entertain an audience with his acoustic guitar and cynically comical lyrics just found out that Trees holds 850 people. He's played to larger crowds, but Dallas will be one of the biggest stops on his newest tour. "Texas is a big state, you have to commit yourself to it. I don't know if it will be a problem, but I've never drawn that many people in Dallas before," worries Harding, "it'll change the show if there's only four people in such a big room." Harding is constantly touring, but this roadtrip is a little different for him. He has a new ground breaking CD, Awake, out on Zero Hour Records and for the first time, he'll be playing most of his set with a band.
Previously Harding has just taken to the road with his guitar, only occasionally adding a single sideman. The simple arrangement highlights Harding's strengths at working intimately with an audience. At a typical show he'll take requests (usually for his Beatles song, a biting crowd favorite that contains a lot of predictions that despite all logic, actually came true), tell stories, and occasionally stop songs midway through to explain a particular point of irony. For this tour in support of Awake, he'll start out his set solo and then later in the show merge with opening act Steve Wynn to create the band referred to as "Gangsta Folk." The additional instrumentation gives Harding a chance to play his songs from the new album with a greater degree of fidelity. Whereas most of the songs on Harding's previous albums worked equally well in the studio as when they're stripped down to a couple acoustic instruments onstage, the songs from Awake have stronger requirements.
Most of Harding's albums have followed a pattern of him going into the studio with a good band and recording fuller versions of road-tested acoustic tunes. For the most part it's served him well. Harding's answer to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil," "The Devil In Me" from 1990's Here Comes The Groom, added a playful horn section to the mix while his most successful song, "The Person You Are" from 1991's The Name Above The Title, amounts to little more than everyday drums and a catchy guitar lick.
Harding almost took the same approach for Awake. "Originally, I had a really good band play through the album," he explains, "but afterwards, when I listened to the recordings, I thought, 'This is boring,' I've to do something that's not like everything else that I've done before."
Starting with the tick and then ringing of an alarm clock, Awake is instead a transcendental lullaby that takes place in the time between the morning clock radio going off and actually rolling out of bed. "The concept all came after the album was finished," admits Harding, "but that doesn't mean that it's contrived.
"A lot of these songs originally came to me in that kind of dreamy situation. When I'm not monitoring myself a lot of good things happen and I thought that would be a good way to tie the album together." This concept has allowed Harding to take his songs one step further by incorporating the arrangements of the tunes into the songs themselves, rather than just as afterthoughts for the CD. "I linked the songs together with a theme rather than linking them musically and that in turn ended up linking them musically anyway," muses Harding.
"Burn," which could have just as easily been recorded with a guitar and drums instead becomes a dark, descriptive vamp. Leading off with the percussive swish of the thumbwheel of a cigarette lighter and a low piano motif, the song reaches deeper as references to fire, both musical and lyrical, are sown throughout. Still as sarcastic as ever Harding instructs, "Make sure it's me up on the funeral pyre/Make sure the house band's playing 'Light My Fire.'"
The abstract theme of Awake also allows Harding some enlivening creative liberties. "Window Seat," set to a persistent riff and sounds of air traffic, is the most outlandish, detailing the life of a child raised on an airplane. Brought onboard the plane as a carry-on, the kid feeds himself on nuts that fall between the seats, spends his teenage years "setting off all the smoke alarms and running through the cabin saying, 'Please stay calm,'" and finally realizes that he's got the whole world, literally, "at his feet."
It's a big developmental step for an artist to release an album so unlike his previous efforts, so Harding's nervousness is understandable. But with the leaps he's made resulting in such a successful album, Harding has nothing to worry about.