M. Ward at the Vic

On his records, M. Ward can seem pretty mellow, softly strumming and crooning old-timey folk-rock. Performing in concert Sunday night (April 26) at Chicago’s Vic Theatre in support of his new album “Hold Time,” M. Ward brought out the more rocking side of his music, proving once again that he is one of today’s most talented guitarists.

A few years ago, Ward seemed somewhat shy as a live performer. He still comes across as a modest guy who’s hesitant to make the big gestures typical of a rock star, but he was smiling an awful lot Sunday night as he sang and crouched over his guitar.

Like other great guitarists — Jack White comes to mind — Ward makes his fluid solos look effortless. It seems like he could stick his hands anywhere on that instrument and it would sound good. And yet, Ward knows he doesn’t have to overdo it. Rather than playing guitar constantly throughout the show, he often let his backup band play the chords while he sang the verses. Whenever he put his hands back onto the frets, the audience knew it was in for something special, whether it was an electric-guitar lick or acoustic finger-picking.

Ward attracted a young crowd at the Vic, but his music is quite old-fashioned, as indicated by the songs he chose to cover: Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and the Don Gibson country classic “Oh, Lonesome Me,” both of which appear on “Hold Time.” And Ward’s original songs evoked the past, too. Changing up the arrangement to his 2003 song “Helicopter,” Ward sat down at the grand piano and gave the tune a rollicking feel that sounded like something Bob Dylan and the Band would have played in the mid-’60s.
For his final song before the encores, Ward dipped into the early-rock songbook yet again, playing Chuck Berry’s iconic “Roll Over Beethoven.” Ward even did a little bit of Berry’s trademark duck walk.

During the encores, when Ward went over to the piano again for his great 2005 song “Big Boat” (a bouncy Kinks-style ditty about taking a ferry across the river Styx), he found himself unable to stay sitting down. While Ward doesn’t have quite the same moves as Jerry Lee Lewis, he banged away at the keys and kicked over the piano bench. Mellow? Who said he was mellow?

Photos of M. Ward and opening act the Watson Twins.

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