Average John

John Wesley Harding has proven he isn't the sort of singer/songwriter who lends himself well to major-label promotion. Telling adjectives slide off the guy like egg off well-greased Teflon. After a long but less than financially fruitful stay at Sire/ Reprise, the hard-to-describe, hard-to-sell guy is now the happy property of indie label Zero Hour.

An English expat now living in San Francisco, Harding (yes, he cribbed his stage name from the Bob Dylan songbook) has a long history of mirroring his influences -- Dylan, Elvis Costello, Robyn Hitchcock -- at the expense of his own image, paying tribute while admirably often forgetting to include himself in the equation. So, not surprisingly, he cuts a rather inconspicuous (though rarely dull) profile both on stage and off, strumming his guitar and phrasing his quirky, well-chosen prose with all the earnest, good-natured etiquette of the scholar-turned-folkie he is.

Arguably, though, there is more to making music than playing the part of human kiosk for the posting of other people's ideas. And thankfully, at long last, Harding has come to appreciate that fact on his latest CD, Awake. Far and away his most engaging album from start to finish, Awake is less folk than pop, more emotion-driven than cerebral and wholly inventive in its various found sounds and samples.

Yet Harding and cast (which includes producer/Bay Area pop guru Chris Von Sneidern) are rarely self-conscious in their efforts to be novel; the songs dictate their own trappings. Note of interest: The artist is touring with Zero Hour label mate Steve Wynn, whose quartet will play an opening set before joining Harding and his longtime accompanist, Robert Lloyd, on stage as the Gangsta Folk.

Upcoming Events

-- Hobart Rowland

John Wesley Harding performs at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, May 16, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $15. The Steve Wynn Quartet opens. For info, call 528-5999.

Modest Mouse -- Don't let the name mislead you; Modest Mouse is anything but shy and retiring. On its latest album, Lonesome Crowded West, this indie rock trio from Issaquah, Washington, explodes the boundaries of its genre, inviting you to revel in a bizarre world where snowflakes are eaten with plastic forks and God is only interested in himself. Their songs tell compelling (if not especially cheerful) tales, while their energetic dance grooves never allow the mood to degenerate into depression. Journeying through Modest Mouse's richly textured audio-scape may not be particularly uplifting, but it is intoxicating. On Saturday, May 16, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $7. Califone and Bickley open. (Melissa Jacobs)

Eric Clapton -- Audiences at your typical Eric Clapton show demand a little of everything: the wailing blues prodigy of the '60s, the laidback/coked-up Slowhand of the '70s, the Armani-clad slickster of the '80s. But what they're likely to get this time around is a thoroughly '90s spin on all of the above. These days, Clapton is a mellowed Adult Contemporary behemoth, but one who still grasps the meaning of the music that "brung him" (as they might say here in Texas). Backed by a 20-piece orchestra, Clapton is affording us the rare opportunity to hear all those legendary hits in a drastically expanded format. It may even be enough to forgive those pathetic ads from tour sponsor Lexus comparing Clapton to their pricey automobile. At 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, at Compaq Center. Tickets are $51.25 and $66.25. 629-3700. (Bob Ruggiero)

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