Saturday, February 24, 2007

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT: M. Ward live at Town Hall, NY, 1/26/07

M. Ward at NY's Town Hall 1/26/07

M. Ward blew our minds with his mind-bending guitar god-icism and world-weary blues vocals. A truly unforgettable performance, live at New York's Town Hall, 1/26/07.

Rare is the musician whose artistry needs no introduction, its brilliance evident even to the uninitiated ear. One accomplished enough that he can afford to let his music speak for itself, without all the pomp, circumstance and artifice of the industry machine kicking into high gear. M. Ward is such a man.

This was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt as he first stepped onto the stage of New York's Town Hall on 1/26. Manned solely with his trusty, beat-up Gibson acoustic, he stood alone, barely visible on the darkened stage, and began to strum.

M. Ward at NY's Town Hall 1/26/07

M. Ward plays without a pick. Though it might not sound terribly extraordinary, it is the very crux of his guitar sound. The magic lay in that strumming hand. With all five fingers freed up from the constraints of a pick, he was able to play both rhythm and lead, simultaneously, alone on the guitar.  

While an awkwardly bent pinky provided a stable mooring below the strings, all his remaining fingers flew into action strumming his rhythm, finger-picking his leads, working a low melody where a bass line might normally be. He raked, he plucked, and slapped like it was slap-bass. He got a deep, fat, sonorous tone playing at the open mouth of his trusty Gibson, played up the neck for a more tenor tone, coaxed ringing harmonics from the frets, and closed out with a nice bend from the head-stock. Like watching a master class, it was a feat that must be witnessed to be believed:

Yes, that's how M. Ward kicked off his concert. A silent entrance, and some mind blowing guitar god'ery.

He followed this jaw-dropper of an intro with a string of tunes from his phenomenal 2006 release, Post-War, and a handful of select gems from older albums. Though I'd seen him perform many of the same songs the previous September at Webster Hall, with a plugged-in set backed by a full touring band, the Town Hall show was my first time ever seeing him solo, with nothing but his god-given pipes, a guitar on his shoulder, a harp at his neck, and a grand piano at his fingertips.

This stripped down sound served to open the ears to the nuanced, dynamic delivery of his vocals. Like a more accessible Tom Waits, M. Ward is a storyteller, a troubadour, a raconteur, with gravel in his throat and a song in his weary heart. It's easy to key into the pain and sorrow of a Delta bluesman, and the moonshine in the backwoods cricks and hollers of American roots music that just as often gets him labeled "alt-country" as "blues."

Honestly, the first time I heard Transistor, the album that hooked me, I actually thought I was hearing an ancient recording of old-timey music, a la the O' Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. But lo and behold, the guy's barely older than I.

If this is the first you're hearing of M. Ward, don't worry. Most of the world hasn't yet caught on to the bluesman from Portland. His authenticity and lack of showy artifice is the kind of combination that keeps an artist out of TRL rotation, and off the radars of most but the die-hard indie fans, critics and bloggers. His reknown has grown organically, via "you've got to hear this guy" word of mouth. That's certainly how it happened with me.

Matt Ward is a musician's musician. Hence, indie music's tastemakers and cognoscenti have adopted him as a go-to-guy for the best in guitar work, and an American roots music brand of blues that is so old it sounds freshly new. Those with an outsider sensibility, like Conor Oberst and Jenny Lewis, have identified in M. Ward a kindred spirit. Those needing to add some indie cred to their more mainstream success without sacrificing musicianship, such as Norah Jones, recruit him to produce and guest on their tracks. And newcomers hoping to garner the right kind of attention flock to his side, knowing that a shared gig with M. Ward will confer respectability and credibility to their names.

M. Ward at NY's Town Hall 1/26/07

Thus, I shouldn't have been surprised to find him inviting some "artist friends" onstage during the encore. First to step up was Omaha indie visionary Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes and Saddle Creek label fame. He lent his guitar and vocals for a duet that, unfortunately, had obviously only been thrown together in the few minutes break before the encore. Conor was followed by Rachel Cox & Patrick Sullivan, of Brooklyn's own alt-country outfit, Oakley Hall, who lent harmonies to his world-weary vocals.

Famous friends or no, the real draw here is M. Ward, plain and simple. His unique combination of style, songwriting talent, and phenomenal ability to coax a story out of every emotion, coloring every note with a depth and range of feeling you can't soon forget. It's addictive, as are his live shows.

Want More?
-Video: Solo acoustic at Town Hall, 1/26
-Video: Fully wired at Webster Hall, 9/14
-Photos: View a gallery from the Town Hall show

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