Tuesday, May 15, 2012

M. Ward Rocks ... Sublimely

M. Ward, House of Blues, Boston, 5/8/12 

I finally got to see Matt Ward perform recently at Boston’s House of Blues. I’ve long anticipated this based on the facts that I’ve long heard from discerning muso friends that he puts on a good show and that I own all seven of his studio releases.

Despite all this, I didn’t really know quite what to expect in terms of which of the Portland, Ore., singer/songwriter’s multiple incarnations would come to the fore in concert this time around: The folky singer/songwriter, the lyrically sharp crooner, the closet rocker, the folk guitarist with the tasteful country jazz flare? I was fairly confident that it would be a lot more formidable than his pop forays as part of She & Him (with Zooey Dashanel) or the rootsy singer/songwriter supergroup Monsters of Folk (with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James). With regard to the latter, I was one the mark; as to the former, Ward’s performer featured a bit of it all.

The guy is an accomplished pop craftsman, an emotive singer with a truly unique voice (one that takes some getting used to for some), and a masterful guitarist who avoids flamboyance despite his impressive chops. His tuneful constructions featured spritely finger-picking forays and he even played a few instrumental songs, both solo and with his quartet of drums, bass and acoustic/pedal steel. And you don’t cover John Fahey unless you’re serious about your guitar playing – and quite confident in your ability to pull it off. Ward didn’t disappoint at all.

His set list was perfect as far as I’m concerned, if surprisingly weighted toward earlier works, particularly 2006’s Post War release. Bafflingly, he featured only three songs from the just-released A Wasteland Companion. But he played nearly all my faves from his robust catalog.

What did it sound like? Well, for the uninitiated, it’s American country-folk with hints of rock and a notable jazzy undercurrent, most evident in Ward’s crooning and his modal chording. There are shades of Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Buddy Holly, mixed with a bit of country twang, folk melody and rockabilly spirit, all filtered through modern production with genuine artistic sensibility. Though slight in stature, make no mistake: M. Ward is musically a man of great substance and taste.

Throughout 80 minute set, his fingers danced across both acoustic and electric guitars, and he even tickled the ivories for one song on the otherwise neglected piano at stage left toward the end of the evening. Besides the Fahey cover, Ward dusted off his transformative slow acoustic rendition of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” featured on 2003’s Transfiguration of Vincent, rollicked through a bouncy version of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and kicked off the encore with Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” (see video above).

Ward may not yet be a household name – though the Dashanel partnership would be the fast track to that if not for the pseudo-anonymity of the duo's collaborative moniker – but he’s got far reaching appeal that should resonate with the masses, not just critics and connoisseurs.


M. Ward, House of Blues, Boston 5/8/12
Post War
For Beginners
I’m Gonna Give You Everything
Chinese Translation
Fuel for Fire
guitar instrumental
Let’s Dance
Magic Trick
Me and My Shadow
I Get Ideas
Primitive Girl
John Fahey song
Fisher of Men
Rave On
   Roll Over Beethoven
   Big Boat

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