Review: Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders at UCSB’s Campbell Hall

Arts & Lectures Hosted the Hip Variety Show on Wednesday, November 13

The NPR podcast episodes of Cabinet of Wonders might leave you suspecting singer/songwriter and novelist Wesley Stace has reinvented A Prairie Home Companion for a younger, edgier East Coast crowd — a variety show before a live audience; music, comedy, and readings by well-known artists and writers; and no Lutheran jokes or rhubarb-pie spoof-mercials. But for various reasons, the electricity at City Winery in New York City didn’t arc in Campbell Hall on Wednesday.

Part of the problem seemed to be the midweek doldrums, further exacerbated by the fact that the event went on for more than three hours, with a steady loss of audience during the last third. But clearly there were other issues. The variety was not varying enough, weighted too heavily toward folk acts that sounded too similar. Originally conceived as a meeting ground for musicians and writers, with comedians providing a buffer between, Wednesday’s performance showcased only one reading, by Matthew Specktor. And then there was gender monotony; there was only one woman (singer Britta Phillips) amid the 13-performer lineup, and too much male below-the-belt joking. Stace, who stocks his shows with friends, risks tipping the scales at times from professionalism to self-indulgent familiarity onstage.

Yet it is difficult not to like Stace, a witty and affable emcee, and a gifted lyricist in the vein of Bob Dylan (his former stage name was John Wesley Harding — the title of Dylan’s 1967 album). “The Dealer’s Daughter” and “Making Love to Bob Dylan” are tightly crafted songs and were delivered with assurance in Stace’s mellow middle range (the rare male songster who does not shove everything into upper voice). Even better was singer/songwriter John Roderick, who sang the most inspired set of the night, including his upbeat, syncopated jewel “Shapes.”

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