For a songwriter of such biting wit, John Wesley Harding seems like an accommodating fellow. His Web site features a glossary of obscure terms for those not literate enough to follow his lyrics. And seeing that his appearance Saturday at Birdy"s is his first Indiana show in more than a decade, he promises to play requests. He offers gentle assistance to hapless journalists.
NUVO: So, you"re touring with a sideman, Robert Lloyd. Where have I heard that name before? Harding: You haven"t. You"re thinking of Richard Lloyd from Television. NUVO: Oh. And even when one mentions the Elvis Costello comparisons that have shadowed his career - fueled by the fact that Attractions" Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas backed him on his first two studio albums - Harding remains gracious. He was flattered by the comparisons, of course. "If it worried me in 1992, then it certainly doesn"t worry me in the year 2002," he says. "I"ve always thought the Elvis Costello comparison was lazy and stupid, frankly." Bingo; that"s the spirit we were looking for. The fact is, despite 14 years of buffeting by both the indie and major-label worlds, Harding has lost little of his edge and none of his sense of humor. His work ethic certainly hasn"t suffered. On the heels of the acclaimed Confessions of St. Ace in 2000, he recorded a new album with accompanists that included Wallflowers guitarist Michael Ward and drummers Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention and Vinnie Colaiuta of Sting fame. Though now a Brooklyn resident, he worked at the legendary A&M studios in Los Angeles. "It"s now Henson Studios, with a huge thing of Kermit the Frog outside," he says. Harding describes the new collection as similar to its predecessor, only different. "It"s kind of lusher and more simple at the same time," he claims. "It"s the best produced and played record I"ve ever made, without a doubt. It sounds like a million dollars." Sadly, the demise of Disney-infected Mammoth Records scuttled the scheduled July release of the disc, The Man With No Shadow. The company allowed him to buy back the record, however, and he plans a release sometime next year. No hard feelings, he insists: "They were quite good about it, really." Not one to mope, Harding used the delay to record a primarily acoustic album, Swings and Roundabouts, which is available at shows and on the Web site,www.wesweb.net
. (Lots of amusing nonsense can be found there as well. His favorite songwriters are Dylan and Springsteen, but he admits an affection for Al Stewart and the Babys.) But wait, there"s more. Harding is just wrapping up his first novel, which he intends to finish late this year and shop to publishers. The story is an elaboration of his 1998 song "Miss Fortune," a Silas Marner-ish tale of an abandoned boy who is rescued by a wealthy man only to be raised as a girl. Is it quite good? "Umm, no, I wouldn"t say that," he replies. "It"s riddled with disasters, but I think there"s nothing that somebody who knew what they were doing couldn"t help me with." The current tour features Harding on guitar and longtime accomplice Lloyd on mandolin, flute, accordion and other instruments. In jam-band fashion, they fly loose with a repertoire of 100 songs, taking requests and throwing in covers as the mood strikes. Harding enjoys pondering the results the next day, when fans e-mail him the set lists for posting on the Web site. "Oh, look. I played a Macy Gray cover," he says by way of example. "It"s like going over the ballgame afterward. It"s the post-play analysis." Harding and Lloyd will perform first during a co-headlined evening that also features Nashville singer-songwriter Kim Richey. Richey built her rep writing contemporary country hits for performers such as Trisha Yearwood, but she reveals a solid guitar-pop sensibility on her well-received new album, Rise. The project was helmed by producer-engineer-multi-instrumentalist Bill Bottrell (Sheryl Crow, Shelby Lynne) and features guitar work by Chuck Prophet and Pete Droge. The Indy show is the only one the two artists are sharing. "I think our pooled audiences will make it into a really fun night," Harding says. "Presumably there"s going to be some people there who, if they don"t like leaving Indianapolis, won"t have had the chance to see me for many years, if they ever saw me. So I would definitely be inclined to play requests or whatever they wanted to hear that night." If you go, wish him a belated happy birthday. Harding turned 37 on Tuesday. Saturday"s show starts at 9 p.m. at Birdy"s Bar & Grill, 71st Street and Keystone Avenue. Tickets are $12. Scott Hall is a music columnist for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus.