After spending the last few years making music with people like Conor Oberst, Jim James and Zooey Deschanel, M.Ward returned to solo work this year with “A Wasteland Companion” and brought his talents to the Boulder Theater on Saturday night.
The show began surprisingly slow. A bluesy bass line and kick-drum beat brought M.Ward to the stage, where he started crooning through the somber “Post-War.” His second song was also a slow one, but that was the last the audience saw of his dark side. The rest of his set, which featured a strong mix of old, new and a couple of covers, remained uptempo and the audience was dancing and cheering to each one.
Even when the songs were joyful, such as “I Get Ideas,” or his popular cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” Ward remained serious with a look of intensity on his face. As one may guess from a man who titled his last album “A Wasteland Companion,” Ward doesn’t take things lightly. He rarely engaged with the audience, instead letting his songs do the talking, and was constantly looking over at his band to make sure everything was lining up just right.
While Ward is often grouped into the “indie singer/songwriter” category, what was truly on display Saturday was his guitar-playing skills. Whether finger picking on an old acoustic or ripping through an electric guitar solo like he was the front-man for a punk band, Ward made the most complicated riffs look easy. He had his eyes half closed, playing like a man who knows his instrument intimately and derives pure joy from it. His love and talent for the guitar came to a head in the encores (a rare double encore) where he came on solo with a single spotlight beaming down, and strummed his acoustic like a madman for four minutes, finally setting the guitar down on the stage, bowing and walking away.
While his talent with his hands sets Ward apart from his contemporaries, his song writing isn’t something to be ignored. The previously mentioned intro to the show was a daring move – few musicians would risk losing their audience with slow sad songs. But Ward’s mesmerizing lyrics, sung in his signature deep and raspy voice, made it work. His words, which touch on everything from falling in love to heartbreak and loneliness, are ones everyone can relate to and are articulated in ways few others can manage.
While Ward was the star of his show, special recognition must go to his band, who add volumes to the sound and made Ward’s songs come to life in a way they could never do in recording. They added depth and kept some of his lighter or slower songs from falling flat, even making the dirge-like “Requiem,” come off celebratory.
Saturday Ward showed that he doesn’t need the backing of Zooey Deschanel or Conor Oberst to put on a great show. Drawing from vintage American rock, folk and blues Ward has created a sound that makes him stand out from the masses of singer/songwriters, with a stage presence that commands attention and respect. He managed to mix long poetic songs with ditties and instrumental tracks with short rock-esque songs, never once losing the audience or an ounce of his frantic energy.
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