Playfully Dark and Incredibly Tuneful With The Jayhawks and Wesley Stace

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Wednesday nights aren’t typically known for rocking out, but rocking out — in only the most cerebral sense — was exactly what happened within the historic confines of Nelsonville’s Stuart’s Opera House Wednesday, April 12 with opener Wesley Stace and midwestern headliners The Jayhawks.

Although you might not know who Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding) is, your local record store nerd most certainly will. His 1999 tune “I’m Wrong About Anything” was even included in American film’s most famous ode to such delightful snobs, High Fidelity. His music is brainy, shamelessly rye, and pretty straight to the point. Stage opened his set with “Making Love to Bob Dylan,” a song that is actually about the singer-songwriter’s inability to copulate to Duluth’s wordiest son — which also showcases the musician’s insanely large musical vocabulary, mentioning how easy it is to get down to everyone from Massive Attack to Gilberto Gil.

Stace is one of those rare musicians who is truly capable of telling story by song, perhaps akin to a less psychedelic Robyn Hitchcock or a more straightforward Nick Lowe. When he pulled out “Uncle Dad,” from his 2011 album The Sound of His Own Voice, it felt like an uneasy, although highly palatable to the ear, slice of gossip floating off Stuart’s proscenium. The Jayhawks just wrapped up recording Stace’s John Wesley Harding album, and, as a fan would hope — the group did join him for a number of tunes, including “I Don’t Want to Rock ‘n’ Roll Anymore,” the opener of the aforementioned record. The song depicts probably how every super-sonic sound geek has felt after falling in and out of love with a fellow audiophile.

“Better Tell No One Your Dreams” is yet another number off of the album that Stace put together with the Jayhawks as his backing band, and one that he played with much self aware poignancy on a Wednesday night at Stuart’s. “People get bored/when they get bored/they get mean,” is probably one of the most clever lyrical tricks this particular music journalist has heard in a long time.

After about an hour-long set, The Jayhawks took to the stage, although that didn’t mean that the audience wasn’t treated to a few more appearances by Stace, who came in and out throughout the Minneapolis’ based band’s performance.

The Jayhawks are a lot of things, but perhaps the most accurate description for their sound is ‘honeyed,’ an adjective that seems to encapsulate the simultaneous sweetness, wholeness, and occasionally satisfyingly raucous nature of their music. The band knocked out nearly two hours of song, touching on everything from Sound of Lies to Rainy Day Music to their latest, Paging Mr. Proust. 

The opener off the group’s most recent effort (which is turning one year old at the end of this month,) “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces,” is not only one of the band’s finest works to date — but also one of their most played Spotify tunes, making one hopeful that many a youngster is running across the tune in their Weekly Discover playlists. Marc Perlman, Gary Louris, Karen Grotberg, and Tim O’Reagan are still as capable of those gut wrenching vocal harmonies as they’ve ever been — something that was achingly evident in the band’s performance of their newer material last night.

Some other gems included the soul-stirring “Leaving the Monsters Behind,” with lyrics “I don’t want to fight/giving it all up/screaming at midnight,” equally searing and somehow deeply human and empathetic. The group pulled out numbers from the critically lauded Raining Day Music — “Stumbling Through the Dark” being the anthem for crying outside a Chinese restaurant in the rain — a place we’ve all been. “Tailspin” and “Angelyne” were other heart-tuggers, delivered with competency and sincerity.

The band wrapped up the night with a rendition of “Big Star,” of off their late ’90s gem Sound of Lies. The song is playfully dark, and incredibly tuneful. A lot like the Jayhawks themselves.