The artist formerly known as John Wesley Harding has gone back to using his real name. The author of three weighty fiction tomes as Wesley Stace has taken to using that name for his music career as well. That’s about all that has changed, he’s still a snappy dresser, a quick wit, a charming host and the writer of catchy, quirky, often humorous songs. He’s been assembling comedic, literary and musical talent under the Cabinet of Wonders name for years at the City Winery in New York, but only sporadically has he taken these shows on the road, bringing a few friends along for the ride, while also drawing from the local talent.
In the former category we had Portlander John Roderick, who’s now better known for his podcast than he is for fronting the excellent, but now seemingly semi-retired Long Winters. In New York, the comedy is usually provided by the strangely unfunny (in my experience) Eugene Mirman, luckily on this trip it was the dry, devastating, sarcastic wit of Todd Barry that provided the laughs. He also brought his excellent backing band from New York, awkwardly known as the British UK, which included the always-charming David Nagler on piano and guitar and bass player Eddie Carlson, both who I’ve seen play with Chris Mills (which may explain Chris’s frequent Cabinet appearances). In the latter group there were famous Chicagoans Jon Langford, Robbie Fulks and Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt of the Sea and the Cake.
After an introduction by Stace where he used clever rhyming couplets (or maybe they were limericks) to introduce each member of the troupe, the guests left the stage with the promise that they would be back. Fulks had the first shift, looking as (adorably) country as possible in overalls, and playing songs from his excellent new release Gone Away Backwards. His solo turn was followed by the band returning to join him on “Guitarman.” While Stace and the band launched into the Bread hit, Fulks just looked confused. Turns out he mean the Jerry Reed “Guitarman.” You knew it was all an act, but it was still amusing. Langford introduced “Haunted,” by telling Stace that Kelly Hogan had also recorded one of his songs for her last record (which coincidentally also included a Fulks song). And sorry Wes, but I like Langford’s song on Kelly’s record better. He also made use of the backing band for a Welsh anthem. I was expecting the rollicking “Delilah,” but it turned out to be a more serious tune.
I hadn’t seen John Roderick since he opened for Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard at Lincoln Hall probably three years ago. At the time he promised the band would be heading back on the road soon, but that hasn’t come to fruition. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been writing songs and he played a few new ones tonight as well as a familiar one. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was “Scared Straight” from the Long Winters terrific record When I Pretend to Fall with the British UK backing him. So good. A mutual friend had coaxed the Sea and the Cake’s Prekop and Prewitt to join the Cabinet tonight by telling them they had to do it. They hadn’t played together (or perhaps at all) in awhile, and though it wasn’t necessarily perfect or prepared (Prekop had large cue cards with the lyrics on the floor in front of him), it was still lovely.
At first having two writers on the bill seemed like a waste of time, I thought I would rather have another song from each of the musical guests (who were limited to three), but as it turns out they were just as entertaining as the other acts on the bill. Disappointingly, I don’t remember either of their names, but the girl read a story about growing up in Alaska and being defended by her father and brothers after a date had given her a black eye. I don’t know if it was autobiographical but she read it with a conviction that made you believe it was. The guy read a short story about starting to date again while taking care of their three, maybe four, kids after his wife left him for a professional ping pong player. It was hilarious.
Sure my bill for two glasses of wine was $30, but it was a lovely evening and a great setting for the Cabinet of Wonders, which turned out to be wondrous indeed.
The Sea and the Cake