Friday, February 8, 2013

SHOW REVIEW: M. Ward 2/7/13

M. Ward performing at the Orpheum



Feb. 7 @ The Orpheum Theatre (Downtown)

It was a cool October evening in 2004 when, on this very stage, I first became enamored with Matt "M." Ward. As part of the first Monsters of Folk Tour, M. Ward's unique vocals, insightful lyrics and deft fingerpicking style on the guitar instantly grabbed me, and after almost nine years, that hold still hasn't weakened.

Since this Orpheum show had been rescheduled from October of last year due to illness, the crowd was more than a little antsy during opening act Soul Junk's set. Second support act, Karen Elson succeeded in winning the audience over with her mix of country and cabaret and a jovial demeanor, however, she even admitted to being excited for Ward to take the stage.

As soon as Ward began to play, bodies started swaying to the title track from his fifth album, 2006's Post-War. Ward crooned, "Some lucky night, some lucky night," portending a magical remainder of the evening. He then transitioned into three more Post-War tracks – "Poison Cup," "Rollercoaster" and, to a healthy round of audience applause, crowd favorite "Chinese Translation" – before introducing Los Angeles to the first of his new songs, "Watch the Show," from his latest release, A Wasteland Companion. While several other songs from the album dotted the setlist ("Me and My Shadow," "I Get Ideas," "Primitive Girl"), Ward also treated fans to tracks from the rest of his catalog, including covers such as "Rave On" – which caused a dance party to erupt in the aisles – and Daniel Johnston's "To Go Home."

In the background, vertical video screens were fashioned to look like windows, projecting scenes of a huge tree silhouetted during sunset, birds taking flight in the first light of dawn and stars twinkling in a night sky. During "Helicopter" the windows showed a view of city buildings with their windows wide open. It was as if you were peering into neighbors' apartments while Ward sang, "I am somewhere in the city / I am climbing up a fire escape." 

A She & Him moment at the Orpheum
It was a treat to see Ward interact with another guitar virtuoso in Chris Scruggs (grandson of banjo legend Earl Scruggs), who elevated songs like "To Save Me" with his fretwork and "Clean Slate" on the pedal steel. Bright Eyes' Nate Walcott shone on piano and trumpet, while drummer Scott McPherson kept the rhythm on track. Bassist Mike Coykendall always enhances an M. Ward show, and when the other band members left him and Ward alone on stage for "Lullaby + Exile," it was one of the set's highlights.

Another stellar moment was Ward's performance of "Sad, Sad Song," from 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent, where his subdued yet incredible touching vocals hushed and enthralled the crowd. He brought the evening to a pinnacle, alone with his acoustic guitar for the instrumental "Duet for Guitars #3," a breathless display of his amazing fingerpicking prowess.

Then, his She & Him partner Zooey Deschanel joined him on stage for "You Really Gotta Hold On Me" off their 2008 debut, Volume One. She stuck around for another Daniel Johnston cover, "Sweetheart," "Magic Trick" and an encore that brought everyone in the venue to their feet of "Never Had Nobody Like You" and the classic tune "California Sun."

Deschanel's appearance whet She & Him fans' appetites for the upcoming release of their third album, Volume 3, in May and a headlining date at the Hollywood Bowl on June 23. But the real standout moments of the night, for me, were when Ward, guitar in hand, came to the edge of the stage and cast a spell with his guitar work over the entire crowd.

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