M. Ward at Park West

As a big fan of M. Ward, I found myself torn when I try to decide which is better – Ward performing a solo concert, or Ward playing with a full band. His concert at Metro in September featured a full backing group – with two drummers, even – and the show rocked with a great, loose vibe. Last night, Ward was back in town, playing by himself this time. What’s interesting is that Ward holds back a little bit on his guitar virtuosity when he’s with the band. Yes, he does some fantastic work on the guitar (mostly electric when he’s with the band), but he also lets the other musicians do their stuff and takes his hands completely off the fret board at times when he’s singing. I was pleased to see a Yamaha grand piano sitting on the stage as I walked into the Park West last night. Seeing Ward play a few songs on piano at a 2004 solo concert at Schubas was memorable – this guy is a pretty good piano player in addition to being a master of fingerstyle guitar.

The opening act was Freakwater, and their backwoods old-time country harmonies sounded great drenched in reverb on the Park West sound system. I’d seen one other Freakwater performance that fell a little flat in a noisy bar with a subpar sound system; Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin sounded so much better last night.

Playing the same, worn-looking Gibson acoustic guitar he’s been touring with since the first time I saw him, Ward walked out and without a word of introduction began playing one of his signature songs, the instrumental guitar showcase “Duet for Guitars No. 2.” (Not actually a duet, obviously.) I like the way Ward combines intricate picking with loud strumming – and does it all in a very loose style that sometimes rushes or slows down the beat. Ward followed “Duet” with the first single off his 2006 album, “Chinese Translation,” another great guitar song. Then came a song I wasn’t familiar with, “Lonesome Me.”

Ward moved over to the piano for “Here Comes the Sun Again,” then he talked about his song “Today’s Undertaking” and how it’s a “rip-off” of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” He played about half of the Orbison song, playing just chords with his left hand while holding the microphone in his right. Then he played “Today’s Undertaking” in the same, spare style. I don’t think the songs are really THAT similar, but I do see a common thread running through them. “Today’s Undertaking” is a great example of a song that might go by the first first few times you hear it, but then when you hear Ward doing it live, what had seemed like a slight song suddenly seems so much deeper.

After playing “Poor Boy, Minor Key,” Ward went back to guitar for one of his oldies, “O’Brien,” followed by “Out of My Head,” “Poison Cup” and “Magic Trick.” Then came a strange interlude where Ward left the stage and played the “video” he directed for “To Go Home,” which is basically just a series of credits that rolls while the song plays. He went back to the piano for another Daniel Johnston song, the haunting “Story of an Artist,” then back to guitar for “Sad Sad Song” and “Undertaker.” The encore was “Carolina,” “Let’s Dance” and “Rollercoaster.” Ward asked for a piano player in the audence to come onstage for that song, and a young guy complied. Ward showed him that song’s little bluesy piano part, and the guy played it well. And strangely enough, the concert ended with Ward leaving the stage as a loop of his guitar part continued playing and the guest pianist continued noodling on the keys for a few minutes.