My friend Ian once said that M. Ward is a great artist to play at a party if you want everyone to go to sleep.
However, the other night at the Commodore Ballroom would’ve set him straight. Now I’m not saying that M. Ward doesn’t play slow and relaxing songs but when he got up on that stage, he pulled out all the stops and played every song I loved that night.
But more on that later.
It’d been awhile since I’d last been to the Commodore Ballroom, so I was thankful when I got inside, took a short look at the merch table, and then was aurally assaulted by my friend Aaron (in the nicest way possible of course), and got a seat at a wee table on the side of the room.
The opener was Mike Coykendall, who was one of the members of M. Ward’s touring band (as well as a touring member of She & Him). From Portland (along with the rest of the back-up band apparently), he played a slew of country-folk songs, with a few heavier on the rock’n’roll side of things. He mostly played songs from his new album (coming out Sept. 18th if you’re interested), and played the first bit of his set with a second guitarist, though I unfortunately forget what his name was.. He did another while on keyboards with drummer Scott McPherson of the back-up band joining him, as well as playing a cover of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ by Hank Williams. For the last bit of the set the whole back-up band (including Chris Scruggs and Nate Walcott) was up there with him giving a taste of the sorts of things to come.
Once he was finished there was quite a bit of a waiting period before M. Ward was ready to take the stage. The whole time I was worrying about being able to see him due to a giant pillar being in the way of what appeared to be the middle of the stage, and therefore conceivably where M. Ward would be standing.
See the big issue that I had with not seeing M. Ward is that I had seen him before about a year ago when She & Him played at the Orpheum, he was probably the happiest person I’d ever seen on stage (that wasn’t in an elementary school play). He just seemed so happy to be playing for other people and we all were soaking up joy from each other. So, naturally, this is what I had been hoping would happen once again that night. This would make NOT being able to see him a big issue.
My worries were washed away, however, when he took stage solo and was in my perfect line of sight, starting off the night with the instrumental ‘Rag’. He pounded on his strings like I knew he would; as I’ve also never seen a man lay waste to strings with his playing claw like M. Ward does (which is a good thing in case anyone is wondering).
He then pulled out a harmonica and got it around his neck before he played an excellent harmonica intro to ‘Fuel For Fire’ from the album Transistor Radio. He followed this up with my first M. Ward song, and many others’ favourite, ‘Chinese Translation’ from Post-War.
The whole band joined on stage after that wonderful number and they launched into the first song from the new album A Wasteland Companion; ‘Clean Slate’. This lead to ‘To Save Me’, a song with a mind-blowing set of arpeggios played in the breaks between verse and chorus (definitely worth a listen off the Hold Time album). ‘For Beginners’, also from Hold Time, came hand-in-hand with ‘Poison Cup’ from Post-War, before we got an old treat in the form of ‘Sad, Sad Song’ from the album Transfiguration of Vincent. I’d never heard the song before, and not only did I love it, but the song had the best solo of the night and left me wanting to hear it again once I’d gotten home.
After the flashback, we were brought back to the present with ‘I Get Ideas’ from the new album, which didn’t have the female back-up vocals it normally does, but apparently Chris Scruggs could solve this problem with a falsetto that was both impressive and disturbing at the same time. Post-War’s ‘Magic Trick’ is another favourite of mine, which I was very happy and surprised to hear, and was followed by my favourite song from A Wasteland Companion; ‘Me And My Shadow’.
HOWEVER, I also have an issue with said song. The picking at the beginning is a great opening, and I love that M. Ward gets to play solo for a bit before the band kicks in, and pretty much everything is perfect about the song. The solo section starts off as M. Ward blasts distortion, and it feels like the build-up of something absolutely biblical…and then it peters out back into the song. The beginning of this solo is such a great sound and build-up, and I just want to strangle someone when he doesn’t take a good two minutes BLOWING MY MIND with his guitar playing skills. So when he went to play it on stage, I was hoping I’d get that extended solo I was looking for but it was not to be.
But the song was amazing, so I’ll let it go.
‘Pure Joy’, and ‘Rollercoaster’ filled in the next two slots quite nicely with a bit of a slower pace before it was time for the first cover of the evening. John Fahey’s ‘Bean Vine Blues #2’ was a bluesy battle between M. Ward and Mike Coykendall, and was a great way to show off both of their playing abilities.
They ended the set with ‘Rave On’ featuring Chris Scruggs as Zooey Deschanel, and ‘Primitive Girl’ the first single from A Wasteland Companion.
Clapping and cheering exploded from the crowd as we demanded more; which the band was more than happy to give, starting off with another old song, ‘Vincent O’Brien’. Then came the second cover of the night ‘To Go Home’ originally by Daniel Johnston, that M. Ward had covered for his Post-War album. A great song when played by either artist, the crowd was in love with it. This turned into ‘Never Had Nobody Like You’, which seamlessly lead into the song I knew was coming all night to end things; Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. When I saw M. Ward play the song during the She & Him concert, I was mesmerized; his playing was amazing, and he was just so enveloped in the song. It had been what I was waiting for all night, and I was more than happy to head on home afterwards.
This wasn’t to be though, as the crowd demanded more, and we were obliged yet again, as M. Ward walked back out and stated his appreciation and sat down at the keyboard.
I wasn’t sure what he was going to play, after all, he’d played everything I’d ever wanted him do play this evening.
But he took me by surprise and played another cover he did for a Daniel Johnston tribute album (which is an incredible album including covers by Bright Eyes, Beck, and Tom Waits), which he played solo on the keyboard. The song was dedicated to all the artists in Vancouver, but also specifically to Rodney Graham, an artist and musician born in Abbotsford. I’m not entirely sure why, but maybe the lyrics to the song hold the answer.
‘Story Of An Artist’ is another amazing song by Daniel Johnston, and while I prefer the original, M. Ward most certainly did it justice on the album and on stage with Nate Walcott highlighting with bright sounds from a trumpet.
And with that, the final bows were had, and it was time to go home. The show was incredible, and to boot, it was one of those special times that everything that I wanted to hear got played. I feel like M. Ward is a underappreciated artist, and doesn’t get the credit he’s due. For such an amazing voice and such skill that he has playing, the crowd wasn’t as big as it should’ve been.
But regardless of crowd size, M. Ward once again proved his worth, and I have no doubt I’ll be there next time he comes around.