SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — John Wesley Harding stands widely accused of being a lesser version of Elvis Costello. Thursday night at the Coach House, he blithely pleaded guilty.
The young British rocker launched his encore segment with Costello's "Miracle Man," lending new meaning to the song's pointed refrain, "Why do you have to say that there's always someone who can do it better than I can?" The delivery was raw, but it lacked the bitterness and gumption of a sarcastic self-defense. Harding seemed to be saying that the criticism doesn't bother him, that it hardly matters.
He's partly right.
It didn't matter that John Prine's early albums resembled Bob Dylan as much as Harding resembles Costello. Prine--whose "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrows)" Harding covered during the set--wrote eloquent, searing songs that did justice to his model. The same goes for Tom Petty's take on the Byrds, or John Hiatt's thefts from a multitude of classic sources. Rockers can atone for their imitations and thefts by infusing a borrowed style with a bright-burning passion that's their own.
Harding's biggest problem wasn't that he sounded too much like Elvis Costello. It was that too often (though not always) he was willing to settle for glibness in place of passion, for cleverness in place of guts, for a wry indulgence in pop trivia in place of a probing look at questions that carry real emotional weight. The point, belabored at great length, was that the pop biz is full of ego, hypocrisy and greed. Actually, the point was to display clever-child Wes' ability to supply an endless flow of quips.
When Harding set aside show-biz references and ostentatious displays of wit, he did manage to make some conviction-filled music. "The Red Rose and the Briar," sung during Harding's solo acoustic spot, showed real heart and a nimble, energetic touch on acoustic guitar. The narrative was both plain-spoken (no bid for cleverness) and enigmatic, and it added up to an evocative look at betrayal and the means for coping with it. "Save a Little Room for Me" swirled up into a stormy and convincing account of loss and abandonment. Harding didn't play "Driving in the Rain," the best song from his new album, "The Name Above the Title." In stark contrast to his wry ephemera about pop icons, the song deals with the harsh consequences that can befall an artist who tells unpopular truths.
If only Harding could have sounded more consistently like his better self, it wouldn't have mattered so much that his better self still sounds a lot like Elvis Costello.
Harding's Sire Records label-mates, the JudyBats, played an opening set that was promising for its execution but disappointing in its lifeless presentation.
The college-age band from Knoxville, Tenn., expertly wove light but firmly rocking textures in which acoustic guitar predominated over electric, while sampling keyboards filled in the gaps with airy or chiming touches. Singer Jeff Heiskell had a sweet, theatrically inclined delivery full of inflections open to the ironies in the songs.
Heiskell by turns recalled the likes of the Pixies' Black Francis, Stan Ridgway and Morrissey, but he was an inhibited performer who lacked the actor's temperament to breathe life into the emotionally distanced characters who inhabit the JudyBats' songs.
Only acoustic guitarist Johnny Sughrue showed much zest for the stage. If the JudyBats aren't energized by their own music (at least not in a way that shows), how can they expect an audience to get caught up in it?