M. Ward

Monday, 05 February 2007

Only a select few artists can pull off the “dude with a guitar” thing as well as California-native M. Ward does. You have Jose Gonzalez, Beck when he feels like it, and a few others. But Ward has something just as unique, allowing him to silence a thousand people and just let him sing—with either guitar or piano—and keep the NPR-loving crowd feeling absolutely lucky to be there. The sold-out performance at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theater marked his fifth show of a six-stop acoustic tour that started in New York and ends on Super Bowl Sunday in San Francisco.

Wearing his trademarked ball cap and maintaining his unassuming brilliance, Ward takes the stage, picks up his guitar and just starts warming up to a bouncy fingerpickin’ number, roaming the stage from left to right. This led in to an extended, slightly adjusted intro to “Chinese Translation,” from his latest album, Post-War. The acoustic-only rendition somehow managed to top the full-band performance from Letterman that’s been circulating on YouTube since August. Listening to his raspy, heart-on-his-sleeve vocals asking three unanswerable questions to a sagacious old fella atop a tall, tall mountain made the audience take a few breaths to stifle the tears. The same bittersweet response happened when the first chord was struck on “Eyes on the Prize.” The performance continued like this until he proved he had some pals in high places…

“Ladies and Gentleman, Miss Zooey Deschanel.” It was quite unexpected, but if you’ve seen Elf you know the girl can hold a tune. And her old-timey salute to early singers blended perfectly with the soulful landscapes of M. Ward. She stayed on for about five songs, but the focus remained solely on Ward. Only one person yelled out her name, but she appeared a little nervous to be in the presence of such a brilliant musician—just trying to hold her own at that point. She did. They started off with the foot-stompin’ sing-a-long “One Magic Track,” as well as an even spookier rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” which drew some oohs and ahhs from the already awestruck audience. He thanked her, she disappeared behind the curtain, and it was back to business.

Perhaps the most possessing moment of the evening came when Ward sat down at the piano, beckoning each person to let him borrow their heart for just one song: “Carolina” from his 2001 release End of Amnesia. The album version is the musical equivalent of most beautiful thing you’ve ever experienced. But watching Ward open up on stage, serenading each and every person in the building, with only his undisguised voice and a few struck keys, put him on another level as a musician. At one point during the song, he put his hands on his lap and sang a cappella, “but that ain’t enough, you want me to run.” You could literally hear the person next to you gasp in awe. Captivated might be one way to describe the audience, but I’m sure everyone would have their own personal depiction. He then gave everyone’s heart back and said, “thank you for coming.”

A loop played as he exited the stage to a roaring applause. After a few obligatory moments of “Think he’ll do an encore?” he reappeared once again with the lovely Deschanel, who can not only sing, but play piano and guitar as well. She picked up one of Ward’s guitars and said, “Here’s a song by Wanda Jackson,” and proceeded to play her 1957 hit “Fujiyama Mama.” Deschanel left the stage after the third song of the encore and Ward closed out the evening with “Sad, Sad Song” from 2003’s Transfiguration of Vincent, begging for an answer to “What do you do when your true love leaves?” This was beyond question a one-of-a-kind performance and will never again be recreated. Each person knew this as well and virtually floated out of the venue with a look of complete satisfaction. Yes, lucky to be there is one way to put it.

Check out a review of Post-War here.

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