M. Ward at the Vic Theatre | Photos and review
When M. Ward visited Chicago on the heels of his 2009 blues-folk-rock album Hold Time, he had accomplished the feat of not only putting out a well-reviewed record, but also living up to the expectations following the success of 2006’s cherished Post War. Ward’s profile only grew from there, with a string of high-profile collaborations that included stints with Zooey Deschanel (She & Him) and Conor Oberst and Jim James (Monsters of Folk). Despite precariously high expectations, this year’s A Wasteland Companion—another era-transcending compilation of impeccable blues-structured pop songs—does not disappoint Ward’s ever-multiplying fan base.
Ward chose the album’s first track,“Clean Slate”, to open with on Tuesday night at the Vic Theatre, a spare number (dedicated to Alex Chilton) that seemed weightier in person. The 90-minute set, situated against a backdrop of a window-framed night sky, leaned heavily on the tracks from Post War. Beautiful, rumbling melodies defined songs that, even live, were polished and clean.
This is not to say the night was without its bluesy revelations. A deliciously rowdy cover of “Rollover Beethoven” in the first of two encores cut the audience loose as Ward shouted and slashed at his strings and the band writhed. Hold Time’s “Never Had Nobody Like You” was pleasantly dirtied-up with an electric guitar that more growled than sang. The stomping bass line in Post War’s “Requiem” was darker and more dangerous with a muff pedal’s distortion. Even the Buddy Holly cover “Rave On”—which Ward treats gently on Hold Time with a surf guitar and Deschanel’s vocals—started perky but was taken into whining, frenzied, jam-out territory.
Ward is nothing if not a craftsman; so much so that he often puts his ego on the backburner for the finesse of his songs. He evidenced this Tuesday night, as he hovered near the microphone with a faint smile upon his lips. Dignified and somewhat removed even as he sang about heartbreak and the trials of losing faith, Ward let his persona take a backseat to the power of his richly textured voice and the stage’s trio of mingling guitars. He rarely spoke throughout the night—save a few introductions of his band members—but humbly bowed before leaving.