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Live Report: M. Ward Records for KCRW

All Photos by Larry Hirshowitz

Since releasing his last solo album in 2009 (Hold Time), M. Ward has offered up two releases with Zooey Deschanel as She & Him, as well as a record with Jim James, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis as Monsters Of Folk. All of these were more commercially successful than any of his previous solo albums have been, but, when I think about the meat of M. Ward’s catalogue, I still think of Ward’s solo albums as the defining elements of his career. In particular, his run from 2003-2006 of Transfiguration Of Vincent, Transistor Radio, and Post War is almost untouchable from a critical perspective, with Ward releasing three modern classics in a short period of time. It is with these in mind that Ward returns to the solo fold with the upcoming A Wasteland Companion, due on April 10th via Merge Records, and the advance tracks we have heard have been promising enough to imagine Ward returning to previous heights. On Friday night, Ward visited Apogee’s Berkeley Street Studio as part of KCRW’s Berkeley Street Sessions for a session that will air on April 10th, confirming suspicion about the strength of his new material, while reaffirming the fact that Ward may be best when he is not sharing the spotlight.

From Ward’s demeanor, standing with his body half-turned from the audience and his mouth practically touching his microphone that seemed a few inches lower than would typically be expected, to his attire, a red flannel shirt and a baseball cap pulled down low that so light hardly touched his face; M. Ward’s presence matched the relaxed huskiness in his voice. And while his vocals usually take a back seat in his collaborative projects, the early part of Friday night’s set highlighted his signature croon, as well as his expert guitar riffs and timeless melodies. The first three songs all reached back into Ward’s past, opening with what is probably his most well-known song in “Chinese Translation,” offering a deep-cut in the form of Transistor Radio‘s “Pauls Song,” and giving a surprisingly rocking version of “Poison Cup” that’s success was heavily indebted to Ward’s tight backing group of Chris Scruggs, Mike Coykendall, and Scott McPherson.

But, while it was nice to get reacquainted to some of Ward’s older material (which later would include a hammering rendition of Post War‘s “Requiem”), about half of the night’s music was devoted to the upcoming A Wasteland Companion. A while a first taste from that album, “The First Time I Ran Away,” was a subtle and reserved beauty, most of the new tunes utilized the full band and took a more traditional rock approach. “Me And My Shadow,” which will include vocals from Deschanel on the album, was up-tempo and heavy, showing that Ward solo doesn’t always mean Ward at his most relaxed. Only the piano-driven “Crawl After You” could be described as a ballad, and it was indeed a very sweet song. But, the biggest revelation of the new material was the previously unveiled “Primitive Girl,” which included an extended jam at its conclusion, proving the song worthy in its placement as closer of the set.

As is always the case with these sessions, the set was broken up with an interview of Ward, on this occasion conducted by KCRW DJ Anne Litt. Litt, always a pleasurable mix of knowledge and fandom, touched on a number of Ward’s strengths. On his collaborative spirit, Ward expounded on how he is able to differentiate between his projects, noting that She & Him are all songs “written by Zooey” and that Monsters Of Folk is “a different beast all together,” while his solo material is limited to “songs that he has written or songs that he enjoys.” Litt also touched on the timeless qualities of Ward’s sound, calling him an “four-track man in a digital world,” to which Ward revealed that he actually always demos on the same four-track. Indeed, this timelessness was perhaps best displayed when Ward revealed he learned guitar by “going through the music of The Beatles from A-Z” and also pointing out other influences in Daniel Johnston and Big Star. And for those of us looking for some insight into the new collection of music, Ward revealed that he has previously always recorded in Portland and Los Angeles, and A Wasteland Companion features sessions at numerous studios that he had always wanted to visit, but never had the chance.

And these themes of timelessness and Ward’s connection to music’s past could be heard on the exuberant closer of the encore; a rousing rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” It was a celebratory song that fit the mood of the evening, and that seemed to fit the mood of the artist. Ward seems like a man who is always creating music in some capacity, whether as a collaborator, a producer, or on his own. And, this April we will get another slice of what has been an intriguing career that celebrates the great history of rock and roll music. It may be a digital world, but there certainly is still a place for this four-track man.

M. Ward setlist:

Chinese Translation
Pauls Song
Poison Cup
Me and My Shadow
I Get Ideas

Never Had Nobody Like You
Crawl After You
Watch the Show
Primitive Girl

Fisher of Men
Roll Over Beethoven

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