Great American Music Hall
March 24, 2005
Review by Michael Calore
M. Ward's stock is going up. With four albums released on increasingly larger indie labels, (Ow Om, Future Farmer, Merge, and Matador, in that order), he's a bit of a rising star. Not to mention two recent tours with Connor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, plus a subsequent appearance on Austin City Limits. He's going places in the world.
There's no reason to tell that to the adoring crowd at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. We cheer and hoot and stomp our feet as he takes the stage alone with his guitar. M. Ward opens the show by simply picking a couple of instrumental tunes on his acoustic. A short medley of "You Still Believe in Me", the Beach Boys cover that opens his latest, <em>Transistor Radio</em>, and "Duet for Guitars #3" from his last album, <em>Transfiguration of Vincent</em>. His talent is stunning, a force that rivals John Fahey and Stephen Stills alike, but instilled with a quiet virtuosity that can only come from a confident young man. With his baseball hat pulled down over his eyes and his baggy sweater hiding his frame, he looks more like a California farm boy at a beach bonfire than tonight's headliner.
After the acoustic medley, M. Ward is joined onstage by his backing musicians, a Portland, Oregon band named Norfolk & Western. They opened the evening's bill with their brand of sleepy alt-country, and they amble back on stage and pick up their instruments as M. Ward switches to a red hollowbody electric guitar. He immediately kicks things into high gear with "Helicopter", the band supplying the shuffle beat. Ward's singing voice, somewhere between a subtle whisper and a late-night croon, is perfectly complimented by backup vocalist and drummer Rachel Blumberg. Together, they play a string of mid-tempo songs. "So Much Water," "Vincent O'Brien," "Regeneration #1," the harrowing "Four Hours in Washington," and a dancey "Poor Boy, Minor Key," among others. They tackle a John Fahey cover and nail it.
The band leaves the stage, M. Ward remains, picks up his acoustic guitar again, and a tape begins playing. It's a distant and quiet reading of his "One Life Away." Ward lets the first verse play through, then picks up on the second round by playing along on his guitar. Rachel joins him on ukulele, and then they both start singing, offering perfectly complimented harmonies. The effect is sweet and powerful, but not nearly as powerful as when Ward stands alone to sing his cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance." The man slows the song down and exposes a deep melancholy and longing beneath the pop sheen of the original. It's the quietest moment we've ever experienced inside the Great American Music Hall -- the entire sold out crowd is dead silent, holding their breath, listening.
The band comes back out to close the show with some more upbeat tunes: "Hi Fi," "Big Boat," "Sad Song," "I'll Be Yr Bird," and the Kristofferson escapade "Fuel for Fire."
We're treated to two encores, including a nice rocking cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Green River". The crowd loves it all, and why shouldn't we? Ward is at the top of his game. He thanks us profusely for our attention and our respect, introduces and thanks the band, then bids us goodnight and bows off the stage. We're all still cheering.
Check out our previous M. Ward experiences:
Review: July 29, 2004 @ The Cat's Cradel, Chapel Hill
Photos: December 15, 2001 @ Covered Wagaon Saloon
& February 28, 2002 @ Great American Music Hall