Chicago, IL • January 29th
Being inside the Park West and just beyond the icy teeth of the Chicago chill was like jumping on a warm and cozy time-traveling railcar and jetting back to a place that seems far off but is really right next door inside your head, a sonic slip back to an old west saloon or an Appalachian backwoods celebration. For two hours you completely forgot you’re at a concert in 2007, and opening act alt-country veterans Freakwater rolled out the carpet in fine fashion.
M. Ward wasted no words. He darted onstage, guitar cradled in his arms, and rambled through a medley of acoustic rock n’ roll-tinged pickings and majestic strumming at the end of which he stepped to the microphone and greeted the crowd.
After telling of his recent trip to the Sundance Film Festival he cued up and played a humorous homemade music video on the side screens which Ward said was the result of being told he needed to make a music video to promote “To Go Home.” The crowd cheered and laughed as the simplistic black and white credits rolled showing M. Ward as king of below and above the line production duties.
Ward played most of 2006’s acclaimed and self-produced Post War and then with “Story of An Artist,” which he said was written by a close friend, shined a heart-searing microscopic on the woes of a struggling artist.
During the performance he alternated between two mics– one connected to a loop machine to add backup guitars– and a baby grand piano. But his largest and most crucial instrument was the audience. He fed off the emotions his songs evoked and used them as fuel and fodder for the next song, graciously luring the listener into a nostalgic trance of memory that’s almost impossible to abort. This solo show highlighted his knack for charismatic crowd play which tends to hide away more when he’s with a full band.
There’s a reason why Post War was included in many of 2006’s best-of lists. He knows how to write a song that is both emotionally galvanizing and accessible no matter where you’re coming from. Fans connect with the vulnerability and the assurance that what you see is what you get. No facade of pretension, only a songwriter who’s asking the same questions we’re all asking as we trudge through life. And like most of us, most of the time, he finds the answers hard to come by but still pushes on.
He’s mentioned in interviews that he pulls his songs from old four-track tapes he made years ago which makes sense when I think of the way I feel seeing his live performance. Ward’s live show matches and then completely transcends the experience of listening via headphones at home.
To close the encore, shielding his eyes from the stage lights to grab a look at the crowd, he invited anyone brave enough to handle the piano part of “Roller Coaster” which, in an effort to lure a fan onstage, he described as a 1.5 on a scale of 10. A brave fan leaped onstage and took control of the piano with mid-song cues from Ward. The audience erupted with applause and cheers and then watched like nervous parents at an elementary school recital as the piano parts approached. In complete ecstasy the fan guided the song through a few more bars while M. Ward exited stage right and called it a night.
It’s not to often a performer can leave the first set with the crowd awed and then come back, do an encore and top the first exit by not even being on stage and still have the audience in the palm of his hand. It just confirms that Monday night was all about the music and delivered in a venue designed to join the artist and a sell-out crowd intimately together.