M. Ward live at First Avenue in Minneapolis on May 24, 2012. Opening act: Chris Scruggs
Post-War, For Beginners, Poison Cup, Me And My Shadow, Watch The Show, Requiem, Rollercoaster, Helicopter, Whole Lotta Losin’, Clean Slate, Chinese Translation, Four Hours In Washington, Magic Trick, I Get Ideas, Rave On (Buddy Holly), Bean Vine Blues Pt. 2 (John Fahey), Fisher Of Men, Never Had Nobody Like You, Primitive Girl, To Go Home (Daniel Johnston)
Encore #1: Such A Night (Elvis Presley), Roll Over Beethoven
Encore#2: Duet For Guitars #3, Big Boat
Perhaps the best concerts to go to are the ones where you talk among the crowd beforehand and its just a given that you’re merely moments away from a magical mystery show of greatness. And then there’s those shows where you go to see some emerging group and you don’t know what to expect – and often those are truly wonderful when they knock you backwards with their unexpected greatness (Arcade Fire in 2005, Of Monsters and Men in 2012, etc, for myself). With M. Ward you know what you’re going to get and you probably got a glimmer in your eye when you saw M. Ward listed at the mainroom in First Avenue on a perfect spring night in Minneapolis. His reputation as solid as any live performer around right now.
What soon followed was the M. Ward Musical Revue – some rock, lots of folk, and a strong country feel with some blues. Following an outstanding folk set by the opener Chris Scruggs (who played with Ward for the majority of his set), M. Ward is like a Super Target with an acoustic guitar – there’s something for everyone and he does it all well. I actually found his new album A Wasteland Companion not the finest of his career but onstage he brings it alive. And I enjoy and appreciate that logical progression of his art. In a perfect world the studio album should set up the timeless live show where the music can be expanded and delivered in an entirely new vibrance or given a 2nd life. Timeless is a term far over-used in the music community but M. Ward brings it some real validity. His songs, short and compact, truly define no generation but help represent all of them. You sense he could play the same setlist 10 years from now and pull off the same vibe. While that’s easier to do in a live setting than it is on vinyl, his records represent the same quality. It makes his old music sound new, and his new music sound (for a lack of better term) timeless.
The long time M. Ward fans know what to expect – a couple dozen songs, all nearly three minutes in length and two big encores. A potpourri of tunes that tie together wonderfully backed with a band that’s as tight as the remote control bands somebody like Prince would tour with in years past. What the show purposefully chooses to remove is improvisation and personality from Mr. Ward himself. Clearly very shy, the early announcement from Ward’s camp that cameras (including cell phones) would not be tolerated was expected beforehand and appropriately enough, 98% of the fans followed suit. While the stage was lit with a few white spotlights they often avoided Mr. Ward – and purposefully upon his instruction I’m sure. While the music was absolutely spot on I sensed Ward was there to just perform, not engage. And that’s not a criticism, just an observation. There’s a warmth we WANT from our favorite performers to engage us with between songs. A temporary friendship or sincerity that allows us to become part of them or a part of their inner circle for at least a few minutes. With M. Ward, while being extremely polite and cordial, you sense an invisible wall between not just himself and the fans but even himself and his band. An odd arrangement that somehow works very well. As both a fan and a critic let’s ask ourselves do we really need to fall in love or ‘connect’ with every performer we appreciate? The answer is no and M. Ward continues to be something of an enigma, and we need that more than we realize. In an era where we quickly absorb, chew on, and spit out new bands as we tire of them M. Ward keeps us at a distance with warm music but a sense of coldness and a wink that makes you want to come back next time to figure him out – just a little bit more. I like that more than I thought I would. Fantastic show at a venue that was made for a man like him and the music he delivers.