By: Alex Wood | Photo: @mrsjjcream
One of the most talented and powerful songwriters in the modern folk scene, M. Ward often feels like a musician’s musician, popping up in the liner notes of your favorite records without you realizing.
Despite his prolific and collaborative tendencies, the guitarist has only gained a small but dedicated following, diehards who will absolutely swear by his work and follow his every move.
Ward rarely tours in promotion of his solo material, but even more infrequent is a solo show, as occurred at City Winery on Monday evening, a performance that flaunted his strengths as a guitarist and the power of his songwriting.
Ward walked onstage to a roaring applause, picking up his black acoustic guitar and instantly beginning the instrumental “Duet For Guitars #2,” the first song from his first album. A conscious splattering of picked and slapped notes up and down the fretboard, the rendition sounded like three guitarists at once, aggressive soloing taking it to new heights.
The strummed chords and harmonica of follow-up “Hold Time” felt simple in comparison, but matched his smooth, clean vocal performance. Fan-favorite “Chinese Translation” followed, its incredible chord progression made even more complex from the intricacies of Ward’s style.
Ward would literally smack the lower strings of his guitar while simultaneously soloing on the higher strings in a style that emulates past masters like Leo Kottke and Bert Jansch. This talent, unparalleled in today’s music scene, remains the foundation of his professionalism on stage, maintaining his reputation as more than merely another folk songwriter.
“Time Won’t Wait,” a track from Ward’s recently released More Rain, introduced looping techniques, Ward literally stacking guitar riffs atop one another to build a larger sound. After setting the loops, Ward jokingly set down his guitar, walked around stage and bent down to fade out the music using his pedals.
Ward then sat down at a grand piano for a set of four songs. His technique was comparable to Neil Young, in that the piano was clearly not his main instrument, but another means to express his songs, and was used effectively.
Short renditions of “Poor Boy Minor Key” and “Rollercoaster” were followed by Daniel Johnston’s “Story Of An Artist.”
The cover was introduced by a story of Ward discovering Johnston’s music through cassette tapes in the early 90s.
“A lot of people think he’s crazy. I think he’s more sane than most people,” Ward said before dedicating the song to “the artists living here in Chicago.”
A definite highlight of the evening, the song was given a classically influenced piano backing, its delicate outer composition capturing the inner beauty of the original.
Rarity “Lullaby + Exile” finished the piano portion of the set, with the equally underplayed “I’ll Be Yr Bird” soon following, introduced as being influenced by the TV series Twin Peaks when Ward was 17 or 18 years old.
“Poison Cup” was performed immediately following a request from a crowd member, the song an endless crescendo upward and a perfect example of Ward’s short but affective songwriting.
“If love / if love/ is a poison cup/ then drink it up
Cause a sip / a sip / or a spoonful won’t do
Won’t do nothing for you / except mess you up”
The track was followed by an older pair of songs, “Color Of Water” and “Sad Sad Song,” which closed out the main set, Ward leaving stage to a standing ovation.
The encore featured Monsters of Folk’s “Whole Lotta Losin,” a song almost always performed by Ward when in town due to its reference to Chicago, and the beloved older song “Outta My Head.”
A fantastic rendition of Buddy Holly’s classic “Rave On” finished the set, Ward using loud, dissonant chords to build its finale upward before finishing with a clean, melodic slide guitar solo.
Ward managed to keep the intensity of his performance high throughout the intimate show, despite not having his backing band, demonstrating that’s it’s his incredible songwriting and talented musicianship that has been responsible for his success all along.
1. Duet For Guitars #2
2. Hold Time
3. Chinese Translation
4. Eyes On The Prize
5. Time Won’t Wait
6. Poor Boy Minor Key (on piano)
7. Rollercoaster (on piano)
8. Story Of An Artist (Daniel Johnston cover – on piano)
9. Lullaby + Exile (on piano)
10. On Hundred Million Years
11. I’ll Be Yr Bird
13. Poison Cup
14. Color Of Water
15. Sad Sad Song
16. Whole Lotta Losin’ (Monsters of Folk cover)
17. Outta My Head
18. Rave On (Buddy Holly cover)