Saturday, September 24, 2011

John Wesley Harding's Cabinet Of Wonders Came To City Winery - Pictures, Review

Last night we stopped in at City Winery to catch John Wesley Harding's recurring variety show, the Cabinet Of Wonders.  Let us begin by saying, the gig certainly did not disappoint.  Combining a wonderfully eclectic mix of humor, literature, and music, the show had something of an old-timey vibe, and unquestionably paid its dues on the promise of something for everyone.  However, even more significantly, it found all the participants genuinely having fun, which yielded an evening of unparalleled good vibes all around.

The show began with Harding playing some of his own material, primarily new tracks from his forthcoming release.  Backed by the "house band", the English UK, his delivery was rock-solid.  Given Harding's troubadour/singer-songwriter roots, this wasn't exactly a shocker, but it was still nice to see him on top of his game.  Moreover, he and his band provided a solid foundation for the rest of the evening's musical guests, and helped to flesh out their performances far more than might otherwise have been possible.

Harding was followed by famed producer Tony Visconti reading an excerpt from his (much recommended) memoir.  The piece was a mid-70's gem about the meeting of Bowie and Lennon, and Visconti's delivery was impeccable.  Despite the fact that we knew he was a native Brooklynite, it was still a delight to hear his snappy, witty delivery in person.

Dan Zanes then took to the stage armed with Harding's guitar, and proceeded to make good on his singer-songwriter street cred.  His set, which was unequivocally the feelgood moment of the evening, included his own version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and culminated in a group singalong of a tune from Zanes' New Hampshire childhood.

Harding then returned to the stage with Eleanor Friedberger, who delivered the musical highlight of the entire show.  We'll be honest, we hadn't gotten around to listening to Friedberger's solo record that dropped earlier this year, and it is now on our "must have" list.  Not only did Friedberger deliver a stellar, charismatic performance, but the material offered so many more melodic moments than her work with The Fiery Furnaces.  In short, this is a woman on top of her musical game, and you should make every effort to see her in a live setting.

After Friedberger, the evening switched gears to the non-musical section of the cabinet, with a touching reading from Jami Attenberg and a largely self-deprecating comedy set from Todd Barry.  Eugene Mirman, normally a cabinet mainstay, also delivered a video update in absentia that had us looking forward to his appearance at next month's show.

MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden closed out the night's individual performances, delivering an awesome version of his band's "Congratulations", as well as a set composed of covers of The Beach Boys and others.  While his solo sound was ideal for his own material, we were glad to see Harding's band join VanWyngarden on stage and supplement his vocals and guitar.  There was certainly a large crowd in the house for the night's biggest name, and he didn't fail to disappoint, although we have to admit we would have liked to hear one or two more MGMT jams.

The night closed out with a group jam session, including Tony Visconti on bass.  The tune of choice was T-Rex's 1971 classic "Hot Love", which Visconti produced in its original incarnation.  Seeing the entire entourage on stage, it was clear that the Cabinet of Wonders had realized its goal.  Put simply, it brought together a group of artists and musicians and encouraged them to have a damn good time.  In turn, everyone else managed to have a pretty damn good time too.

The Cabinet Of Wonders continues at the City Winery with new lineups in October and November.