Wesley Stace is John Wesley Harding. In case you hadn’t gotten the memo, the singer-songwriter, who took the stage name from Bob Dylan’s 1967 album and used it for the first 25 years of his career, has spelled it out for you with the title of his latest album, Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding. Stace had begun using his real name publicly with the release of his first novel Misfortune in 2005, but it wasn’t until his 2013 album Self-Titled that he began recording under it. Whether a simple nod to the pressures of marketing (changing the name you record under after over two decades can’t be great for record sales no matter how much press you give it) or an acknowledgement that with this release he has gone full-circle musically and returned to the more rocking sound of his earlier years after the previous album’s more subdued textures (in fact, a number of songs on the album are previously unused ones that date back to the earlier period), Stace’s choice of name for the new album serves to draw together the two phases of his work. Recorded in Minneapolis with The Jayhawks as his backing band, the album’s twelve tracks are classic Wes (as his fans knew him even before the name change), and show an artist still at the top of his game long after many of his contemporaries have thrown in the towel.
Wes wasn’t backed by The Jayhawks for his recent show at Jammin’ Java (“one of the best gigs in comparison to its name in the world”), but instead brought along his regular band of the last several years, The English UK. With guitarist and keyboardist David Nagler, bassist Eddie Carlson, and drummer Adam Gold, Stace ran through a set of tracks new and old. He opened the set with his 2012 single (and last release under the John Wesley Harding moniker) “Making Love to Bob Dylan” before moving on to the opener of the new album, “I Don’t Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Now-classic Wes songs like “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” (from 2011’s The Sound of His Own Voice), “The Truth” (from 1992’s Why We Fight), and “The Devil In Me” (from 1989’s Here Comes the Groom) mixed seamlessly with new tracks such as “Better Tell No One Your Dreams,” “For Me and You,” and “The Wilderness Years.” Between songs, Stace bantered with the audience, telling the stories behind many of them along with other anecdotes.
Stace and his band capped off the hour-and-a-half-long set with a two-song encore, featuring a cover of “I’m a Believer” (a song penned by Neil Diamond but made famous by The Monkees) and another track off of Here Comes the Groom, “Scared of Guns.”
More casual fans may have lost track of Wes after the name change, but hopefully Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding will help to set the record straight once and for all. Whatever name he chooses to use, the musician formerly known as John Wesley Harding continues to put out some of the most interesting, intelligent folk rock of today.