Out and About: John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders
    • TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2011

    • Posted by: Stefanie Wray

    Friday night at City Winery with John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders was a mature affair. John wore a spiffy suit and graciously indulged NPR (who was there to record the show) by announcing intermittent radio breaks into the microphone, each complete with a cheeky "This is NPR." His backing band, the King Charles Trio, was actually comprised of more like six musicians, including Peter Buck (REM) and John Moen (The Decemberists). The band played songs with John Wesley Harding and all of his guests.

    A comedy act with Eugene Mirman kicked off the night. Eugene walked out with a theremin to punctuate his jokes about "actual tweets." The act fell a bit flat until we were treated to a special taste of upcoming comedy shows. The shows shall not be named out of respect to his wishes ("I'm telling a secret to a room of 400 people." he joked), but, suffice it to say, the video teaser warmed the crowd to roaring and we all looked forward to the next act.

    Audrey Niffenegger was up next for a short reading from "Requiem for a Bookshop," bringing attention to the fact that a wonderful independent bookstore, Bookman's Alley, is about to close. Perhaps another fallen soldier to the digital book revolution.

    Notable music sets included those by Nicole Atkins, Ted Leo, and The Blue Fisherman. Nicole Atkin has some powerful pipes and treated us to three songs about angst ridden love; one, she admitted, contained a line ripped from The Time Travelers Wife, by Niffenegger. Ted Leo was his usual earnest and energetic self, coming straight off tour with a touch of hoarseness as proof. He really rocked it with the house band. The Blue Fisherman hailed all of the way from Edinburgh, Scotland to blow us away with songs that channeled W.B.Yeats. He finished his set with a cover of Richard Hell's "Blank Generation." I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the smells of New York: reefer in the alley, a cacophony of perfumes in a coffee shop, his opinion that all apartment lobbies smell the same in New York.

    Also on the ticket was author and amateur musician, Myla Goldberg. Myla was hilarious as she enlightened us all on the outrageous meaning of the Maryland state song. "Thou wilt not crook to his control/ Maryland, My Maryland!" actually refers to Abraham Lincoln, even though Maryland is considered a northern state. She was saying Maryland would have voted to secede from the Union if Lincoln hadn't basically held Baltimore hostage to ensure a pro-Union governor and legislature. We sang along to a rousing chorus of the absurd song, which is set to the tune of Oh Christmas Tree.

    My favorite part of the night was when Howe Gelb came on to treat us to a couple of songs. He admitted to being late for sound check, having just traveled to New York from Montreal, so we saw an improvised and charming set. He asked whether we wanted to hear an "existentialist" song or a song about "love after death," then whether we wanted to hear it on guitar or on the "red piece of plastic" (piano). His signature low desert grumble made every song enthralling. Gelb has released over 40 albums over the course of his career with his constantly evolving band, Giant Sand, and solo projects, such as Arizona Amp and Alternator. This year he released Alegrias, which was recorded on a rooftop in Cordoba, Spain, and the jazzy Snarl Some Piano.

    I caught up with Howe Gelb for a couple of minutes after the show to chat about upcoming releases, his growing band, and the next generation of musicians:

    I heard you were recording in Montreal before this; are you working on something new?

    Yes, always something new.

    Is this a project with Giant Giant Sand?

    This is different, but yes, [Giant Giant Sand] is happening sometime soon. That's coming out first.

    How Giant is Giant Sand?

    It's massive! It's double the size by a times and a half!

    How many members do you have now?

    Twelve. If you include me, five from Arizona and seven from Denmark. Wow, it's a potpourri!

    How have you been expanding your sound? Snarl Some Piano is a purely instrumental, piano album, will you continue with this departure or or try something new?

    Yes, it's one of those. It's the fourth in a trilogy.

    Fourth in a trilogy?

    A trilogy is not to be underrated! A trilogy can go on for many, many records, we hope.

    Is that turquoise? [Point to his large ring]

    That is turquoise. Probably from the Morenci mine in Arizona. Although, it was bought up in a trading post at the top of the Rocky Mountains. My sister got it for me, and she got it from her best friend Nico StrangeOwl, who's Cheyenne, actually. It's made for a much larger man, so I had it duct taped to fit.

    [manager interjects] Spiritually or physically?

    You decide. This is how good my manager is— one of these five guys from Arizona turned me onto Cumbia, and then, my manager, when I come into town, she says, oh by the way we know Wyatt; so they take me to a bar in Brooklyn where, whats the name of that band again? Chicha Libre! Chicha Libre ended up giving one of my guys a Cumbia CD about a year and a half ago, and now it's really come around full circle, thanks to Olivier. It was the biggest coincidence. I'm a coincidentalist! I never would have found the source of the Nile if it wasn't for you two! [Points to his companions]

    What have you been listening to this year? What are some of your favorite albums of 2011?

    Aw, you know you'd have to ask my daughter. She's your age and she tells me who I've been listening to. Otherwise, I just listen to old stuff. Really old, old stuff. Jaaazz. Stuff I've heard millions of times, but it still manages to give me more information every time I listen to it.

    Do you encourage your kids to be musical? Do you teach them?

    I make it available, and if they attach themselves accordingly, like my 9-year old did, well actually, so did my 12-year old, so did the 24-year old, but the 9-year old has really got something going on! She doesn't know it yet.

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