IN TUNE: Steve Earle and frontman Mike Scott of the reunited Waterboys premiered songs from upcoming albums, Loudon Wainwright showed where Rufus, Martha and Lucy got all that talent, and John Wesley Harding was beside himself with joy from an astonishing “Cabinet of Wonders” performance at City Winery last night.
Although this second of three shows in the recurring residency wasn’t originally intended for that purpose, it became a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Sandy, with the artists contributing their fees, Harding said. What’s more, he said, “City Winery agreed to kick in.”
And although no pre-determined theme was established, a living folk-rock legend who made his name not far from the downtown venue made his way into much of the music — and even one of the evening’s readings.
The 2½-hour, sold-out show, podcast on NPR, had the packed house roaring and cheering throughout.
High points included Scott and Waterboys fiddler Steve Wickham bringing out Earle and Harding for the “world premiere” of a new tune, “I Can See Elvis,” before launching into a swinging version of “Fisherman’s Blues.”
Earle, who continues to be a voice of reason amid the roar of beasts, shared two songs from his new, 12-track album due out in May — including the haunting, real-America title cut, “The Low Highway”:
He also performed “Burnin’ It Down,” his direct shot at Walmart for its handling of employee pay, health benefits and lack of unions:
It isn’t often he stretches back that far in the canon, but Earle was happy to fulfill Harding’s request for “Guitar Town.”
Both men clearly enjoyed the romp:
Loudon Wainwright seemed to steal the show, performing two laugh-out-loud tunes but also reciting, elegantly, a touching and humorous piece written by his late father Loudon Wainwright, Jr., a columnist and editor for Life magazine.
In it, the elder Wainwright compares the death of the family dog to that of Ali McGraw’s character in “Love Story.”
But that was before Scott and Wickham transformed the finale into a Varick Street version of “The Last Waltz,” with Scott playing the Dylan role not only in a strikingly similar hat but also with a similar voice — only decipherable.
That Zimmerman guy popped up at other times, as well. Earlier in the show, Scott read an excerpt from his book, “Adventures of a Waterboy,” that recounts his meeting his hero.
That was after Harding (top photo) ignited the evening with his catchy power-pop-cum-glam-rock tune, “Making Love to Bob Dylan”:
“I can bang a gong to ‘Ride a White Swan’
I find sex to T. Rex thrillin’
But I can’t make love to Bob Dylan .”
One of rock and roll’s last renaissance men, Harding followed that with the flip side to the 7-inch double-A single, “A Buzz,” before pulling a surprise with Andrew Gold’s “Oh Urania.”
Later in the show, the erudite master of ceremonies – a raconteur who could give Elvis Costello a run for his money — said he felt “like a pig in shit” sharing the stage with Wainwright.
Joined by Earle, JWH and Harding’s backing band, Scott invoked another musical icon, singing about an other-wordly Elvis Presley, “razor-quiffed and leather squeezed…. Keith Moon behind him banging drums, Charlie Parker all thumbs, John Lennon doing handstands ….
“I can see Elvis talking philosophy and law
With Joan of Arc and Plato
Quizzing Shakespeare about his plays
Teaching Blake and Marvin Gaye how to dance the mashed potato….”
The song, which Scott said would be on the reunited Waterboys next album, had a bit of a Wilco swing taken higher by Wickman’s masterful bowmanship. Talk about a supergroup ….
Building to a fitting close — given the specter of the folk-rock icon who influenced the show — the entire troupe took verse turns on “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (Easy Chair).”
Then they closed with the Kevin Ayers number that wraps up each and every Cabinet: “Singing a Song in the Morning (Religious Experience).”
After each took a bow, Harding was left to say that it had one of the most remarkable times he’d ever had onstage.
There’s still another Cabinet to be convened next month – this one with Fountains of Wayne, Ron Sexsmith, Eugene Mirman, John Oliver of “The Daily Show,” The Silver Ages, Colum McCann, Joshua Ferris and David Wax Museum.
Tickets are still available: CityWinery.com (Cabinet of Wonders)
Dial up any of this year’s Cabinet of Wonders performances: NPR Cabinet of Wonders