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.