Don’t Soil Your Pinafores: Cabinet of Wonders Comes to NPR

“May I present the cabinet: its contents, and its discontents,” begins John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders, the live variety show that’s running in six neatly packaged episodes from NPR this summer. And not to spoil their intro, but there’s little in there to leave one discontent. What the Nieman Journalism Lab “guess[es] is a variety show for hipsters” might work out to this formula: if you graduated from a liberal arts college in the past fifteen years, own a pair of Converse sneakers, and have ever fantasized about being the president, Cabinet is the kind of performance you’d imagine staging on the White House lawn for your birthday party. A vaudevillian piano romp transitions between writers reading, comedians joking, and musicians playing small handfuls of tunes. The live show, which runs a meaty two-and-a-half hours at Soho’s City Winery, wraps up into a fifty-three minute prix-fixe delicacy for the NPR podcast/radio program, currently airing on WFUV in the Bronx, among other stations.

“I know it’s a fashionable term now, but the idea really is to put together a well curated show,” says Wesley Stace, who goes by the moniker John Wesley Harding (as in the Bob Dylan album) for the music/performance side of his work. “The whole idea of variety is that you come for one thing, and leave with something else…the absolute goal is to introduce people to artists they wouldn’t have otherwise known about.”

Case in point: on episode four of the podcast, John Hodgman’s musings on doppelganger science and Sloane Crosley’s incidents of travel in Ecuador are immediate draws—they’re witty and wry and hit all the right beats. But if you’re unfamiliar with the musician Bhi Bhiman, I swear his voice is of the rarest variety of beautiful that if you don’t feel compelled to turn to the person next to you on the D train and evangelize for him, then something’s wrong with your headphones.

The seed of Cabinet of Wonders was a little show Stace did in the late ’80s, while touring as a rock musician, called “The John Wesley Harding Medicine Show.” It had a comparable format, “except I had a pathetic address book in the ’80s,” he explains. Even now, Cabinet is largely just a conglomerate of names from Stace’s Rolodex.

“It’s all Wes,” says Eric Nuzum, Vice President of Programming for NPR. “They’re all his friends, and he’s just really good at keeping in touch with people.”

“There’s a history that comes with sharing dressing rooms with people. It’s a camaraderie from just travelling around,” Stace says. “And then there’s people like Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen”—who performs in episode two of the podcast—“our children go to school together.”

One other antecedent of sorts is the public radio variety show Live Wire! out of Portland, Oregon. Both Stace and Eugene Mirman, the comic sidekick and “resident mirth man” on Cabinet, have appeared on the show, which features a smattering of original comedy sketches in addition to music. “They were definitely an inspiration,” notes Stace.

But for all the great comedians on Cabinet, there’s something to be said for peppering in acts that don’t rely on laughs. “Comedy is always a great way to get people interested in what you’re saying,” he explains. “But a writer like Patrick McGrath reads so brilliantly, that even if it’s not funny, it’s such psychologically accurate prose that the audience is saying, ‘Good lord that was a great writer.’”

And speaking of great writers, or rather songwriters, I have one more nerdy fanboy digression; sorry. But John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, in episode two, plays the song “You Were Cool,” which he’s yet to record for an album. The default fan recording is from his performance at my college radio station’s show last fall. NPR has now usurped our station in terms of recording quality, but no matter. The point is that the song is out there, and if it doesn’t melt you into a soup of emotion, you may want to consult your doctor about lack of soul.

Cabinet, for that matter, does a good job of encouraging artists to perform outside of their default contexts. A.C. Newman plays a work in progress. Sarah Vowell, instead of reading, answers audience questions alongside Mirman. Peter Buck of R.E.M. and members of The Decemberists back Stace for one of his own tunes. It’s part of what makes Cabinet a great show in its own right, as opposed to just a solid list of performances.

In all, “it’s a show for people who like music and enjoy discovering things,” says Nuzum. Or as Mirman explains, the listener “is sitting in their Volvo or low-end Lexus, probably went to Vassar, and is generally liberal but a little afraid of Latinos. And you’re thinking, ‘that’s not me’…but it’s you.”

Photo by Rufus Standefer

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