For anyone who has the impression that M. Ward performs sleepy, quiet music (an impression you could easily get from some of his records), this performance definitely proved otherwise. Ward played electric guitar, not acoustic, almost all night, until the first encore. And he had two — two! — drummers. Ward and his band rocked, with Ward taking some wonderful guitar solos. It’s not just the solos that make his playing special, it all of the subtle finger picking he employs throughout his songs. But when he’s playing with a full band, he doesn’t hog the spotlight, often delegating some of the guitar lines to the other players, allowing him to sing verses without touching the strings, or to step over to his electric piano.
Ward tends to crouch down, doing sort of a low-key version of Chuck Berry’s duck walk as he skulks across the stage with his guitar. And his microphones are set low so that Ward has to lean down into them, scrunching his face as he sings in his husky voice. His face looks calm as he plays a solo, though, his fingers flying with amazing ease.
As Ward and his band came out, a recording of Daniel Johnston’s original version of “To Go Home,” the second track on Ward’s new album, was playing. With Ward pounding the chords on the piano and those two drum kits clattering with a joyful sound, his band took over the song.
While there were a few folky moments, Ward emphasized the rock side of his repertoire. After closing the main set with “Big Boat,” Ward returned to the stage alone for an acoustic encore. In “I’ll Be Yr Bird,” he changed the words to “I’m not Vic Chestnutt, I’m no Bob Mould.”
The set list on the stage listed another Daniel Johnston song, “The Story of an Artist,” as the final song of the night, but when Ward and band came back for a second encore, they instead chose to play the song that may be Ward’s most memorable anthem, “Vincent O’Brien,” and it was the finest live version of it I’ve heard.
This was also surely one of the best concerts I’ve seen this year.
M. WARD SET LIST
To Go Home
Four Hours in Washington
Right in the Head
Poor Boy, Minor Key
Duet for Guitars #3 (this may have begun with Rag)
I’ll Be Yr Bird
Lullaby & Exile