This past Thursday night, with little fuss and a full backing band, Portland troubadour M. Ward
made his headlining debut in St. Petersburg, creating live magic with a warm and compelling dynamism, vigorous serenades, and a general sense of ease and contentment that shone through in the half smile he wore throughout much of the show.
Clad in a long-sleeved plaid shirt, jeans and brown leather boots, Ward strode onto the stage and with a single set-opening verse, “One … one … one … one or two won’t do,” the hundreds of fans who’d shown up to see him at State Theatre burst into ecstatic cheers, which only grew as he and drummer Scott McPherson, bassist Nick Freed and guitarist Mike Coykendall launched into the meat of “Poison Cup.”
Ward’s laid-back roots and Americana stylings get an ample boost of rock n’ roll spirit in a live setting, his crushed velvet purr still a dreamy caress to the consciousness, but rising to a husky-timbred resonance for the majority of the night and carrying through the theater with far more clarity than I expected from the venue’s sometimes murky sonics.
Ward cycled through a 70-minute set that went as far back as 2003’s Transfiguration of Vincent
, leaning more heavily on material from his two most recent full-lengths, Hold Time
(2009) and A Wasteland Companion
(2012) – a lively and drawn-out reading of “Me and My Shadow” proving the latter album’s highlight – but also touching on cuts from 2006’s Post War
(like one of the night’s biggest crowd-pleasers, “Chinese Translation,” and his set-closing cover of Daniel Johnston track “To Go Home”) as well as 2005’s Transistor Radio
; his solo acoustic reading of “Fuel for Fire” with hands-free harmonica during the encore just about broke my heart open and made it bleed, while “Four Hours in Washington” carried a much greater sense of urgency and power than the studio version.
The performance gave me a new appreciation for Ward’s axe abilities. He jumped between a few electric Gibsons and his trademark acoustic Hummingbird, crouched over the instruments, his fingers blurring as he picked, flicked, plucked and thrashed the strings, sometimes stretching up the fretboard high on the neck as he held his guitar straight and upright to better batter the strings. Other times, he put the full thrust of his body into playing, becoming a frenetic ball of energy that wheeled, jumped, kicked, and flailed around the stage.
Some of us left that night even more in love with M. Ward’s music than we were before, a seeming impossibility, but true, nonetheless...
Above picture by Phil Bardi; gallery below by Daniel Veintimilla...