See also: M. Ward Discusses A Wasteland Companion, and His Arizona Ties to The Meat Puppets and Howe Gelb M. Ward Crescent Ballroom Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Following fIREHOSE's blistering set of punk jazz, I was almost worried that the hushed immediacy of Portland-based singer/songwriter/producer M. Ward would suffer by comparison. Don't get me wrong: I love the guys records, including the brand new A Wasteland Companion, and I'm well aware that there are a few cranked-up rock 'n' roll numbers in his repertoire, but how exactly do you pull off a largely subdued sound with such an amped-up audience?
Mostly, it turns out, by simply turning up the volume and having fun. On record, Ward's music sounds distant and vague (in a good way), but in concert, he was entirely present. Backed by a solid rock 'n' roll combo, he sang with his distinct voice, but it was full and powerful.
Opening "Vincent O'Brien" and "Fool Says," a pair of songs from 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent, Ward was in good spirits, seeming rested and recovered from any Coachella madness.
Ward's the kind of songwriter who doesn't shy away from paying homage to his influences, and with new song "Clean Slate," he does just that with Alex Chilton, the Memphis songwriter who fronted The Box Tops, Big Star, and had a harrowing, exciting, and eventually jazzy solo career. Ward picks little bits and pieces from all of Chilton's different eras, especially the skeletal rockabilly of "Watch the Show," which the band tore into with off-kilter glee.
Valley songwriter Lonna Kelley joined Ward on stage for two more from Wasteland, a charming Latin shuffle of "I Get Ideas" (sang by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Ricky Ricardo) and Daniel Johnston's "Sweetheart." She seemed a little hesitant during "Ideas," but by "Sweetheart" was ready for her star turn. Ward looked on with a smile as she belted out, "Oh, my love, take my hand; we'll go walking," with a huskier, warmer tone than Zooey Deschanel (Ward's duet partner on the record).
From that peak, Ward descended into the valley with the first gorgeous moments of "Poison Cup," then was joined by the band for the song's driving coda. He took to the piano for "Crawl After You," and it was a quiet, beautiful moment.
Things picked up again from there, with Ward and band tackling country shuffles and glam rock stomp, like the wonderfully T.Rex-ish "Never Had Nobody Like You." Ed Crawford of fIREHOSE emerged to finish off the set with a take on the Elvis Presley version of "Such a Night," and Mike Watt trotted out with the rest of the band for a swampy encore performance of "Spoonful" and an up-tempo take on "Roll Over Beethoven."
It seemed like a perfect ending, but even as the lights and overhead music came on, Ward and Crawford came out for one more. Crawford took vocals and Ward sang backup on "Freight Train," a haunting, strange ending to the night.
"Vincent O'Brien" "Fool Says" "Clean Slate" "Watch the Show" "Me and My Shadow" "I Get Ideas" "Sweetheart" "Poison Cup" "Crawl After You" "For Beginners" "Cosmopolitan Pap" "Primitive Girl" "Requiem" "Bean Vine Blues" "Fisher of Men" "Never Had Nobody Like You" "Such a Night" (With Ed Crawford) (Elvis Presley)
"Spoonful" (With Ed Crawford and Mike Watt) (blues standard) "Roll Over Beethoven" (With Mike Watt, Ed Crawford, Monique) (Chuck Berry)
"Freight Train" (Ed Crawford, M. Ward) (Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten)
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Last Night: M. Ward at Crescent Ballroom
Overheard: "I'm loving this show right now!"