M. Ward at Schubas


One of the first times I saw M. Ward perform in concert was at Schubas. It was Feb. 25, 2005, and the opening acts included a band almost no one had heard of called Dr. Dog. Both performers have since gained considerable fame and acclaim, and gone on to play much bigger venues. So it was a real treat to see M. Ward back at Schubas on Sunday night (Dec. 4). Chicago got lucky with this gig. Ward played a charity gig in the Quad Cities, and played this one additional show, calling it his “Rock Island Line” tour.

One thing that made it special was the opening set, which featured longtime Ward sideman Mike Coykendall along with their mutual friend, singer-songwriter Carlos Forster. Forster has a new record out, Family Trees, which was recorded by Coykendall and produced by Ward, with Ward signing a duet with Forster on the song “Campfire Songs.” Coykendall and Forster are both nice singers in their own right, and they were joined by Ward for a few songs, giving the whole thing the feeling of a basement jam session by old friends.

That vibe carried on during the main set. As in many past gigs, Ward wore a hat, almost seeming to hide his eyes as he performed. As always, Ward’s guitar playing was excellent, showing his virtuosity without showing it off, and he casually reached over to plink a few notes on the piano at times. Along with Coykendall, the band included drummer Scott McPherson and Nashville pedal steel player/multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs. The superb but too short set (barely more than an hour) ranged from hushed acoustic folk to rollicking, old-style rock ‘n’ roll. Ward didn’t say anything about the first song he played, but it was a Howlin’ Wolf cover — maybe a tribute to Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, who had died earlier in the day?

SET LIST: Howlin’ for My Darlin’ (Howlin’ Wolf cover) / Poison Cup / Post-War / Chinese Translation / Paul’s Song / Vincent O’Brien / Cosmopolitan Pap / Fisher of Men / Bean Vine Blues #2 (John Fahey cover) / Whole Lotta Losin’ (Monsters of Folk song) / Rock Island Line (folk song cover) / Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry cover) / ENCORE: Magic Trick / Campfire Songs (Carlos Forster vocals) / We All Gotta Go (Mike Coykendall vocals) / Never Had Nobody Like You / ENCORE 2: 100 Million Years (Ward solo acoustic)

Mike Coykendall and Chris Scruggs

Carlos Forster











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.

Andrew Bird redux

Little did I know that a New York Times Magazine reporter was at the same Andrew Bird concert I attended last month at the Hideout… Catching up the other day on some of my magazine reading, I realized that the magazine’s Jonathan Mahler covered the show as part of his nice profile of Bird in the Jan. 2 issue. Here’s my original blog post about the concert, and here are my photos from the concert.

Bird’s new record, Noble Beast, comes out Jan. 20, but you can stream the whole thing now on the NPR web site at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98649962. (NPR is also streaming one of the other records I’m eagerly anticipating, M. Ward’s Hold Time.)

M. Ward at Metro

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
Magic Trick
Chinese Translation
Requiem
Undertaker
Post-War
Poison Cup
Emperor (instrumental)
Flaming Heart
Regeneration #1
Neptune’s Nest
Helicopter
Poor Boy, Minor Key
Big Boat

FIRST ENCORE
Duet for Guitars #3 (this may have begun with Rag)
I’ll Be Yr Bird
Paul’s Song
Lullaby & Exile

SECOND ENCORE
Vincent O’Brien

SEE PHOTOS OF M. WARD AT METRO.

March and April 2005 concerts

The Underground Bee has been out of commission for a month or so… I was too exhaused by the big SXSW 2005 extravaganzato pay much attention to updating this site. It’s time to catch up. But first, here is an actual letter to the editor I received recently. (The authenticity of the signature is open to question, however.)

DEAR SIR,

I have perused the “Underground Bee” Web site, and I have to admit I am quite disappointed. There is much blathering on about Rock Bands and nary a mention of honey, beeswax, hives, drones, queens and such. I found a reference to something called “Bee Thousand,” but did not understand its meaning. In the future, please try to add items that might be of interest to the striped population.

Sincerely,
Buzz Aldrin

Well! I must admit I keep promising to expand this site’s purview beyond the aforementioned “blathering on about Rock Bands,” without fulfilling said promise. One of these days… I promise. I am far behind on my bee research.

Now, back to the blathering… Some recent concerts:

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APRIL 1 — The Kills at the Double Door. I have to plead ignorance about the music of the Kills  — I just listened to a little bit of their new album online as I decided whether to see this concert. I was intrigued when some critics compared the Kills to P.J. Harvey. I’m not sure that I see that much of a connection, but the Kills certainly put on a pretty darn entertaining concert. Guy on guitar, plus girl on vocals (and occasional guitar), plus drum machine. The spare lineup left them room to cavort across the Double Door stage, working up a good sweat. I will definitely be checking out the Kills’ music after seeing this show. Opening act Scout Niblett was simply tiresome. PHOTOS.

APRIL 3 — Dolorean at Schubas. The club was pretty empty as Dolorean took the stage at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, just 25 to 30 people sitting around to hear Dolorean’s lovely, quiet folk-pop. Bad timing, I suppose. Can’t these Sunday-night shows begin a little earlier? Anyway, Dolorean (which is mostly singer-songwriter Al James) sounded good live, and the lack of fans didn’t detract from my enjoyment. In fact, it made it seem more like James and band were playing a personal gig for the few fans in the place. One of the opening acts, Jeff Hanson, had an amazingly feminine voice, though this guy didn’t look the least bit androgynous. His songs sounded pretty good on first listen, falling somewhere in Jeff Buckley/Nick Drake territory.

APRIL 9  — Magnolia Electric Co. at Schubas. I‘m still not convinced that the 2003 album titled Magnolia Electric Co. was actually by the band called Songs:Ohia. That name doesn’t appear anywhere on my copy of the disc (though I’ve seen copies with a Songs:Ohia sticker). In any case, Jason Molina is now officially calling his band Magnolia Electric Co., and it is a first-rate group. Neil Young and Crazy Horse comparisons are inevitable, but Molina has his own distinctive voice. I like its natural quality. While he doesn’t do a Mark Knopler talk-singing thing, I get the sense that his singing comes straight out of his speaking voice. There’s something very conversational about it. And I love those deep-pitched solos that he plays on the lower strings of his guitar. Three members of Magnolia Electric Co. served as the opening act, playing in the incarnation known as the Coke Dares. Their shtick is playing very short songs in rapid succession, always being sure to say the name of each song. It was quite humorous. I’ll have to hear the songs on CD to say how worthwhile they are, but the Coke Dares seemed to pack a lot into each little burst of music. PHOTOS.

APRIL 15 — Paul Westerberg at the Riveria. He smashed a TV, a telephone and a guitar. He played a lot of his recent solo songs and a few odd covers (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Different Drummer”). He took swigs of whiskey. The concert degenerated into a series of aborted songs: one verse of “Like a Rolling Stone,” half of “Substitute,” a few chords from “Sweet Jane,” the riff from “Cat Scratch Fever.” His band anxiously awaited his next move. Someone got up to leave from a balcony seat and Westerberg said, “Hey, don’t you dare walk away!” Westerberg was falling down on the stage as he played his guitar. Was it all an act? He threw the microphone out into the crowd during “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and then jumped off the stage himself. End of show. Would he bother coming back for an encore? Yes! Glorious versions of “Alex Chilton” and “Left of the Dial” ensued. Was this concert a train wreck? Yes, at times, but it also had moments of triumph.

APRIL 16 — Andrew Bird at Metro. I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Bird recently, and it’s always an honor to see him play live. He’s still doing his amazing one-man band act, using a sampler pedal to loop various string and guitar sounds, building a song from the ground up right in front of the audience. That’s fascinating to see and hear, and it helps that the songs are so good. Kevin O’Donnell was with him on drums tonight, adding jazzy percussion. Bird actually slipped up a couple of times as he tried to juggle all of the musical balls  — but in an odd way, that made his act all the more impressive. It makes you realize how difficult it is to pull off perfection. Near the end of the show, one round of applause swelled beyond the typical cheering, and I sensed a genuine outpouring of affection and appreciation from the crowd. Opening act Archer Prewitt put on a fine set, with his soft, jazzy art-pop songs building into catchy grooves. It was nice seeing Dave Max Crawford, who works as a Metro bartender, on the stage as part of Prewitt’s band, drawing a big hand for a trumpet solo.

APRIL 17 — Damien Jurado at Schubas. Somehow, I’ve missed seeing Jurado in concert until now. I was tempted to see Elvis Costello over at the Auditorium tonight (I’ve somehow missed seeing him in concert, other than one show back in 1989), but I just couldn’t blow off Jurado again. Jurado is one of those singers who doesn’t look the least bit like a rock star, which makes him seem all the more real. He sat down for the whole show, getting up once to go back and play drums for one song. A nice mix of Jurado’s quiet acoustic songs and some rockers, like “Paper Wings.” Responding to an audience request, he played “Ohio” from Rehearsals for Depature, noting that he was heavily medicated (from hospital drugs, not illicit ones) at the time he wrote most of the songs for that album, so he doesn’t really remember the experience. I picked up a copy of that CD on the way out  — I owned it once before, but then it was stolen from my car. I wonder if the thieves ever listened to it? PHOTOS.

APRIL 20 — M. Ward at the Abbey Pub. Another musician I enjoyed interviewing recently. And as I mentioned before, I am waging a campaign for the recognition of M. Ward’s current supremacy in the musical firmament. So of course I enjoyed this show, which featured Ward playing with a full band, his pals in the group Norfolk & Western. The concert had its share of quiet acoustic moments, but it also rocked, especially with songs such as “Big Boat,” “Vincent O’Brien,” “Four Hours in Washington” and “Sad Sad Song.” It’s nice how much Ward varies his live performances. “Fuel For Fire,” which he played on piano at Schubas in February, was back to being an acoustic guitar song this time around, but with a really well-played harmonica solo added to the intro. His Carter Family cover, “Oh Take Me Back,” which is just a short ditty on Transistor Radio, began with an extended bluesy instrumental section. Despite his renown as a guitarist, Ward felt comfortable enough with his role as frontman to take his hands off the guitar and just sing at times. And at other times, it was possible to hear a tiny bit of the surprising influences he mentioned in my interview with him: Sonic Youth and Firehose. None of his music would be confused with those bands, but at a few of the concert’s loudest moments, he did make some dissonant noise with his electric guitar. Norfolk & Western had its own slot as the first opening act, playing melodic folk rock, followed by Devotchka, which played artsy cabaret music — a little like Calexico, with whistling, violin and accordion Interesting, I thought, though obviously not for all tastes. The crowd seemed to dig it. …Speaking of which, the M. Ward crowd was quite young, and I spotted a Bright Eyes T-shirt. Maybe he’s picking up some fans from his tours with Conor Oberst. PHOTOS.

APRIL 21 — Yo La Tengo at the Vic. You might take it as a bad sign that I kept nodding off during this concert, but I’d put the blame more on lack of sleep than lack of interesting music. Yo La Tengo started off the concert with a long instrumental drone, three keyboards going at once, bearing some similarity to Wilco’s much-hated electronic experimentation on “Less Than You Think.” Personally, I like this kind of thing, in small quantities, at least, and I thought this was a daring way for Yo La Tengo to start off its show. (Plus, it gave me time to catch a few winks.) The trio kept things eclectic at this concert, with punky garage rock, super-hushed mellowness and tropicalia. They even did a little dance routine. Somehow, it all sounds distinctly like Yo La Tengo and no one else. Responding to very enthusiastic applause, the band played three encores. A reminder of what a great band this is. NOW why was this concert on the same night as Chris Stamey at the Abbey Pub? I would have liked to have seen both, and given the fact that Yo La Tengo plays on Stamey’s new CD, you wouldn’t think they’d book shows at the same time. Oh, well…

M. Ward and Dr. Dog at Schubas

As a self-proclaimed “M. Head” (see my CD review), I went to see this show (Feb. 25, 2005, at Schubas) for just one reason, M. Ward’s performance, but it turned out to be a good triple bill.
Playing first: Shelley Short, a singer-songwriter with a pretty voice playing languid little ditties, traditional folk with a bit of old-timey songbook… but not so much that her music ever crossed into the cloying cuteness of Betty Boop stuff. If you need a reference point for Short’s style, she’s somewhere between Gillian Welch and Nora O’Connor — not nearly as accomplished as either of them, but showing a lot of promise. She sat down and played acoustic guitar for the whole set, backed by upright bass and drums.
After the show, I asked Shelley where she lives. “Portland, Oregon,” she said. “Wait, what am I saying? Chicago.” (She lived in Portland until about six months ago.) I picked up her CD, Oh Say Little Dogies, Why? You can tell from the packaging (or lack thereof) that it’s a homemade effort, but it generally sounded good to me on my first listen.
Up second was Dr. Dog. These guys from Philadelphia were fairly raucous onstage, though they always kept their performance grounded in the melodies and riffs of their songs rather than indulging in full-out jamming. They reminded me a little of My Morning Jacket, though not quite as hairy or loud. And the Faces — but maybe that’s just because I’d been listening to the great Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… box set earlier in the day, and suddenly the Faces seem like a touchstone for a lot of bands.
Anyway, Dr. Dog played songs rooted in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with good harmonies, impressive little instrumental breaks and some quality jumping and head-bobbing. I also picked up their CD, Easybeat from National Parking Records (a bargain at the merch-table price of $5). First impression: Not as loud or wild as the live show, with some interesting sounds and songs… Needs more time for evaluation. (See Dr. Dog on the SXSW site.)
Onto the main act…
I was not shocked that this show sold out, though I was a bit surprised at how quickly tickets disappeared. Who are the fans? People who found out about M. Ward from his opening slots on the tours with Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket? No obvious group of Bright Eyes fanatics was visible in Schubas, but then again, it was a 21-and-over show so that might have shut out that contingent. Maybe Ward’s fan base is simply growing as more people hear about him (…through exposure such as his June 2004 interview on NPR).
Ward’s performance was preceded by yet another poem of opaque gibberish from Chicago’s rock concert poet Thax Douglas. Thax’s poems are indecipherable, but at least they’re reasonably short, and I’ve come to accept them as a sort of Chicago concert ritual. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see the reactions of concertgoers unfamiliar with his… um… Thaxness.
After Thax left the stage (nearly knocking me over in the process), Ward came up, the top half of his head enshrouded in a thin blue cap. As he plugged his guitar into his effect pedals, a young woman near the stage wearing an M.WARD T-shirt asked him to sign it and he politely replied, “Maybe later. I’m a little busy now.”
Standing away from his two vocal mikes, off to the side of the stage, Ward lifted his guitar with the neck pointed at the ceiling (for you guitar geeks out there, the only guitar he touched all night was his black Gibson J45) and played perhaps the quietest imaginable choice for an opening song, his version of Bach’s first prelude from “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” It’s clear that Ward is a virtuoso on guitar, but he doesn’t play this piece with the practiced precision of a classical guitarist. He gives it a looser, more emotional feeling.
A hush fell over Schubas, and the club would stay quiet for the next ninety minutes or so, broken only by the appreciative applause between songs, the occasional shout of “Chicago loves M. Ward!” or the murmur of audience members singing along in whispers. Ward was violating one of the Laws of Concert Scheduling by playing a solo acoustic set as the headline act after an opening set by a loud rock band, but that didn’t matter. This crowd was enthralled.
Without pausing, Ward’s Bach piece shifted into one of his most touching and obviously personal songs, “O’Brien,” from End of Amnesia. He proceeded to play some of the best songs off that album, as well as Transfiguration of Vincent and the new Transistor Radio. If anything, the set was dominated by key tracks from Vincent rather than the new CD.
Ward makes his guitar playing look easy, but there are few players who can make the instrument sound quite like he does. The key is his agile finger picking. On some songs, he used alternate tunings. It was startling to see that the guitar part he plays during the verses of “Sad Sad Song” is actually just one chord, played in an opening tuning without any fingers on the fretboard at all. Based on that description, you’d think it would be monotous and dull, but the rhythm and finger-picking pattern keep it interesting.
Ward did not say a whole lot between songs — nothing at all during a long stretch at the beginning of the concert  — and it was hard not to get the feeling that he’s reserved. After all, he uses an initial instead of his full first name. In the past, he’s let his hair hang down over this eyes in concert. Now, he was wearing a cap that almost seemed like a disguise. He wore a serious expression for most of the show, though a flicker of a smile sometimes it made it feel as if the seriousness was just a put-on. Or maybe it was his slight smile that was the put-on.
(Yeah, yeah, I know this sort of psychoanalysis of someone you’re watching on a stage is pretty bogus, but I can’t help it, especially when someone like Ward puts forward a persona that seems different than most of the other performers out there.)
Is that voice of his a mask he has chosen? Does he sing in a bit of a whisper to hide what his voice would sound like at full volume? Or is it just the way he naturally sounds? He does have a distinctive singing style, with a real heft and husky tone that gives it more weight than the sort of whispy falsetto that male vocalists often use when they want to sound pretty.
[Ward’s explanation, from the Merge Records Web site: Ward is at a loss to explain the origin of his singing voice, a three-pack-a-day rasp that sounds like it should come from a 75-year-old Mississippi Delta bluesman. It’s as much a non sequitur as the Southern-fried vocal delivery used 40 years ago by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, a man who grew up just north of Oakland, Calif. “I don’t smoke,” Ward says. “I started recording in my parents’ house when I was 16 and, not wanting to wake anybody up, you just start to sing quieter and play quieter. I think that’s why my voice is so messed-up. People who only know the records think I’m really old or from the South.”]
Ward had no other musicians to help him out, but he never needed any assistance. Not only did he confirm his mastery of the guitar, he also sat down at a piano for several songs, showing that the tasty piano playing that pops on some of this studio recordings is no fluke.When he sang along to his piano playing, his music felt even more antique — echoing old-time ragtime, blues and jazz, as well as a slightly more recent influence, Tom Waits.
It was especially cool to hear Ward playing a piano version of “Flaming Heart,” a song that’s dominated by guitar in the studio version on End of Amnesia.Another piano highlight was Ward’s cover of the Daniel Johnston song, Story of an Artist,” which generated several laughs with its goofy but heartfelt lyrics.(Ward’s version of the song and Johnston’s original are on the 2004 CD Discovered Covered.)
Ward used his effects pedals to loop his guitar parts on a couple of songs, allowing him to solo on top of his own chords. Playing “Vincent O’Brien” for his encore, Ward even stepped over to the piano, with his guitar still slung over his shoulders, and pounded away at the keys for a joyous bit of racket that closed the song.
After all of his songs about sadness, Ward introduced his final song of the night as the happiest tune ever written. It was a lovely cover of “What a Wonderful World”  — with Ward omitting the title line of the song whenever it occurred, leaving it up to his guitar to speak those words. As he finished the song, Ward smoothly segued into a snippet of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” and with that melody still echoing on the sound system, he left the stage.
It was a masterful performance.
As I was leaving, I spotted Andrew Bird in the crowd and briefly talked with him. Bird’s obviously a fan of Ward’s music. “I feel a certain kinship with his music,” he told me.

M. Ward: Transistor Radio

First of all, let it be known that I am a huge fan of M. Ward’s music. His last album, Transfiguration of Vincent, was my favorite CD of 2003, and it also may be my favorite disc released so far this decade. Some fans will swear by the previous Ward album, The End of Amnesia, as his best. That one’s great, too. I can think of few songwriters working right now I admire as much as Ward. I’d also rank him among the best guitarists around, and one of the best singers.
Have you ever heard a band or singer for the first time and felt as if the sound was something you’d been looking for? In my case, M. Ward is one of those artists.
So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise how much I’m enjoying Ward’s newest CD, Transistor Radio (which comes out Feb. 22 on Merge Records).
Given my high expectations, I felt disappointed the first time I listened to Transistor Radio. That M. Ward sound was still there, but the songs seem quite as strong as those on Transfiguration. Maybe that was because some of them are muted, deliberately sounding distant, like broadcasts from a mysterious radio station (that being the theme of the album). I wouldn’t be surprised if some critics and listeners have the same first impression. The three-star write-up in the newMojo reads like a review by someone who hasn’t listened to it enough.
But with repeat listens, all of the melodies and musical nuances made themselves clear. Transistor Radio is another Ward classic, with one beautiful song after another, the sort of album I’d gladly listen to more than once in a row.
Although Ward describes the CD as a sort of concept album dedicated to underground and independent radio stations, it’s not clear how the concept applies to most of the songs, at least as far as the lyrics go  — other than “Radio Campaign.” The concept has more to do with the spirit of the songs and the way they sound.
Transistor Radio starts out slowly, beginning with a brief instrumental version of the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe in Me,” followed by a song obviously designed to sound old-timey, “One Life Away,” in which the narrator directs his song “to the people underground.” It’s not clear until the end whether the “fraulein” he’s talking about is one of the living or dead people. (Even at the end, I’m not sure it’s totally clear.)
The next three songs, “Sweethearts on Parade,” “Hi-Fi” and “Fuel for Fire,” are typical Ward — melodic folk-rock tunes that could have been hits in the Simon and Garfunkel era of the ’60s or cult favorites from the likes of Nick Drake in the ’70s.
Then the album shifts into a bluesier section, with a trio of songs using more electric guitar, piano and elements of early rock. They’re far from standard wannabe oldies, though. “Four Hours in Washinghton” is a haunting scene of insomnia, without anything resembling a chorus, the lyrics more like a poem with a circular structure. The melody is slight, ranging no further than a few notes, and maybe not that original. Somehow, Ward makes it all his own. The song reaches its climax as the words end and acoustic guitar picking emerges from the mix. The next track is the instrumental “Regeneration #1,” the kind of echo-laden jam that Ward’s pals in My Morning Jacket might pull off. And then there’s “Big Boat,” a rocking gospel number with a bass piano break that echoes late ’60s Kinks classics. In case the ferry references in the lyrics aren’t clear enough for you, the CD cover shows a book titled, “Coins for Charon’s Ferry.”
As “Big Boat” ends, the CD reaches what would be the end of Side 1, and Ward says he intended for people to listen to the album as a two-sided LP. That’s an outdated conceit — how many people are actually going to listen to this on vinyl? — but it’s still not a bad way to organize the songs for an album.
“Side 2,” such as it is, begins with “Paul’s Song,” a pretty and melancholy tune that declares every town seems the same to a touring musician. From there,Transistor Radio runs through a series of six more classic Ward songs, showing his great knack for coming up with tunes that sound simple on the surface but work their way into your head. The title of “Radio Campaign” refers to a single line in the song, and it’s a wonderful idea: A guy putting out the word in a radio campaign that he wants to get back his old “peace of mind.” One of the last songs, “I’ll Be Yr Bird,” was already as a bonus track on the reissued version of Ward’s first album, “Duet for Guitars #2,” but I don’t mind hearing it again, here in its new context.
Closing as it began with an instrumental guitar performance, Transistor Radio comes to a peaceful and achingly lovely conclusion on “Well-Tempered Clavier”  — actually, the first prelude of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” It’s a beautiful composition that has almost become a cliche as a study piece for piano students, and yet I’ll never grow tired of hearing it or playing it, and it’s such a joy to hear Ward transcribing it for guitar.
And at that point, I feel like going back to that Beach Boys song that began it all. If this really were an LP, I’d be turning it over to Side 1 again.