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)