Love and Death

John Wesley Harding / Ellis Paul

Schuba's - Chicago

May 14, 1999 - Early Show

First Appeared in The Music Box, June 1999, Volume 6, #6

Written by John Metzger


Chicago can be a tough town for performers, but John Wesley Harding has made the city a place that he can call home. Over the years, Schuba's Tavern has become a regular stop for the wandering minstrel, and his current jaunt was no exception. Fresh off the release of his new album Trad Arr Jones on which Harding pays tribute to Nic Jones' arrangements of traditional British folk songs Harding established himself at the intimate venue for four shows over the course of two nights in mid-May.

Despite the early start for the first performance of this run, a near-capacity crowd had gathered by the time Harding took the stage. He quickly launched into his latest composition Talking Millennium, which skewers the notion that this coming New Year's Eve is anything more than just a day on the calendar. Also performed in a solo acoustic format were beautiful renditions of You So & So and Little Musgrave. On the former, Harding picked a tender guitar accompaniment to underscore his tearful vocal delivery. The latter is perhaps the best song on his new album, and Harding set the mood perfectly as he magically transported the audience back to medieval times for this tale of infidelity.

Throughout the evening, Harding used his sharp wit and delightful stage banter to engage his enthusiastic fans and pass the time while tuning his guitar. He even managed to take a few requests, though not always with the intention of actually performing them. For example, when one fan requested Build Me a Coffin, Harding delivered Peeling Bark. He acknowledged, "As many of you know, some of these requests are for the next tour. I'm still working on the requests from this time last year."

Nevertheless, much of the show was pre-scripted as Harding touched upon the entirety of his career. He donned a harmonica for a passionate rendition of Save a Little Room for Me, which also featured his long-time accompanist Robert Lloyd on accordion.

Lloyd's best contributions to the show, however, came later in the set as he traded in his accordion for a mandolin. His gently picked melodies meshed perfectly with the strum of Harding's acoustic guitar, adding a graceful texture to songs like Miss Fortune and The Person You Are.

Over the course of the 90-minute set, Harding frequently mentioned David Bowie, and he and Lloyd even managed to briefly break into a few strains of Ziggy Stardust in the middle of The People's Drug. It was only fitting then that the duo summed up the set with a haunting rendition of Rock 'n Roll Suicide, which not only fit the Bowie theme for the evening, but also lyrically matched with Harding's songs of love and death.

Ellis Paul opened the show with an enjoyable set that fit rather well with that of Harding. Paul's voice is a beautiful tenor, which he allows to delicately float over his fluid and captivating rhythm guitar style. His best performances of the evening came on the subtle Take Me Down and the road-weary 3,000 Miles. However, over the course of his nearly hour-long set, Paul's lyrically strong songs became musically somewhat one-dimensional. Nevertheless, he did manage to hold the audience's attention quite well. To conclude his portion of the concert, Paul stood in the middle of the room for a completely unplugged rendition of Neil Young's Comes a Time, while the crowd sat in stunned silence as he made the song his own.

Trad Arr Jones is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright 1999 The Music Box