- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding may be too wry for his own good. The British troubadour seemed a good bet to follow in the erudite footsteps of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, et al. when he emerged in the late ‘80s with a series of verbally brisk releases.

Instead, he began the by-now-familiar label shuffle, leaving Warner Bros. in the mid-‘90s for more independent terrain at Mammoth Records. His last original album, “The Man With No Shadow” got shelved after Mammoth folded.

None of those hardships reflects poorly on his music, a sturdy assortment of pop and folk marinated in his indubitable wit.

This week, he brought his stripped-down tour to Iota in Arlington, a club where every syllable rings true.

Fans at the two-hour show should have earned English credits for absorbing the singer’s musings.

Mr. Harding, accompanied by longtime musical chum Robert Lloyd on mandolin and organ, infused Tuesday’s concert with a festive spirit. The evening wrapped his current tour, a fact he repeatedly reminded the crowd in increasingly witty ways.

Drawing from his past dozen years, plus a sneak peek at an upcoming release, Mr. Harding appeared on the cusp of giddiness throughout his set.

He wisecracked about persnickety guitar strings, made apologies to Siegfried and Roy for a funny tune about a tiger’s revenge and squeezed in some of his best songs, particularly from 2000’s underlooked “The Confessions of St. Ace.”

That album’s “Bad Dream Baby” seemed an unlikely choice for an acoustic rendition, but Mr. Harding kept its structure intact while throwing into relief its tale of a pregnant woman’s plight.

The singer’s banter bordered on arrogance at times, though his tongue is so permanently lodged in cheek it’s hard to say where shtick stopped and personality began.

After the show, Mr. Harding shrugged off any concerns about record sales in an age of Britney Spears. He washes his hands of marketing matters.

“It’s not your job to do any of that. It’s your job to do good music,” the lanky singer said between scribbling signatures on CDs.

The singer grew up listening to, first, David Bowie and then, later, Bob Dylan. The fledgling musician morphed his own name, Wesley Harding Stace, into its current incarnation in a nod to Mr. Dylan’s 1967 album.

“When I was 14 years old, I started buying a lot of Dylan, and it was a slippery slope,” he said.

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