M. Ward, John Ansford Theater, 9/9/05

M. Ward

Taking a break from opening for the White Stripes, M. Ward played a solo show at the underused John Ansford Theater last Friday. The theater’s outdoor foothill stage was a nice fit for his postmodern back porch country/bluegrass/blues/folk rock.

M.’s lone wolf restlessness that comes across on record, also shows right away as he takes the stage. Unassuming in appearance, he strapped on his black acoustic and immediately stalked the area, face shadowed under an angled-down cap. Opening instrumental “Duet for Guitars” was fingerpicked with furious precision on the high strings while the low strings were pounded, buzzing freely with punk energy. This tension between opposing flavors–not in small part the source of his appeal–manifests also in his singing that ranges from a mud caked baritone, filtered with a spooky echo, to a fragile, raw falsetto. Accompanying himself ably on either acoustic, hollow body electric and grand piano, M. read through distilled versions of his tunes, from sad, sad songs to upbeat stompers. The set included the obligatory Daniel Johnston cover as well as “hits” “Vincent O’Brien” and “Helicopter.” He ended the night with an utterly unironic cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” stripping the lyric from is gaudy 1980 Top 40 arrangement.

On first listens, one might wonder if as a young man M. has lived the world-weariness that his voice often conjures. Is it an affectation, his shtick? The result of too much Tom Waits? Perhaps he started smoking at age 8? But in person (no cigarettes present) and no interference between artist and audience, the voice is clearly genuine, an extension of a restless body and, most likely, soul.