By: Alex Wood
M. Ward flies under the radar of the average music listener, though his knack for understated folk songwriting has earned his discography a following of diehard fans.
Despite his reputation for simplicity, his live shows breathe new life into his already-outstanding compositions, as proven during his performance at Thalia Hall on Thursday, Ward’s first Chicago date since 2012.
Performing with a rhythm guitarist, bassist, drummer and keyboardist, Ward’s experienced backing band matched the straightforwardness of his songwriting to perfection.
Though the concert didn’t sell out, the audience was noticeably excited, Ward appearing on stage to massive applause.
Those expecting a set of slow and simple folk songs were instantly introduced to the songwriter’s live energy.
Ward opened with a long instrumental that initially served as the outro to his 2009 record Hold Time, defiantly avoided his reputation for lyrics in favor of musicianship. The track combined surf-rock guitar with intricate, classical-influenced acoustic picking, steadily building to a large finale. By the song’s finish, Jenny Lewis’s Nice As Fuck, the first opener of the night, were back on stage, dancing in front of a microphone.
An obviously conscious decision by Ward, the song immediately established the band’s ability and intentions to rock while matching his newest record’s surf-influenced sound.
Lewis remained on stage for “Radio Campaign,” lending harmonies to the decade-old folk song, a definite treat for longtime fans as Ward finger-picked flawlessly throughout. “Magic Trick” followed, its catchy vocals and upbeat nature providing additional momentum to the set.
Ward then offered a sampling of songs from his most recent record, More Rain. “Little Baby” featured doo-wop background vocals from the band and a slow surf vibe, Ward adding a phenomenal guitar solo to the middle.
“Time Won’t Wait” and “Confession” followed, both highlights of the new album. The tracks channeled the roots-y simplicity of his earliest releases, each catchy and packed with energy, the latter featuring a climactic, drawn out electric guitar solo that proved Ward’s musical expertise.
Ward then played “Whole Lotta Losin’,” a song from his Monsters Of Folk project, initially a collaboration with Bright Eyes and Jim James. Ward’s bassist and guitarist each sang a verse, replacing the supergroup dynamic with an appropriate nod to the beyond-competent backing band.
Energy remained high throughout the middle of the set, the well-crafted setlist an inevitably conscious decision by Ward. “I Get Ideas” and “Primitive Girl” were even danceable, the latter featuring a punk-like blast of distorted guitars that practically drowned out the keyboard melody.
Songs from fan-favorite album Post-War dominated the rest of the setlist, Ward performing the lyrically powerful “Poison Cup” before the instrumentally mind-blowing “Chinese Translation,” Ward’s spacey, jazz-chord dominant guitar unparalleled by almost any modern peers.
Four more songs from Post-War were performed before the encore. “Eyes On The Prize” was smooth and sexy, while “Requiem” and “To Go Home” struck peak energy for the set.
As is common for Ward’s performances, the artist ended the main set with a John Fahey cover, this time “Bean Vine Blues #2.” The blistering instrumental featuring flawless, speedy guitar picking, ending the set as it began with a focus on instrumental prowess.
Yet the highlight of the evening was yet to come, as Ward performed three consecutive classics acoustic and alone.
“Duet For Guitars #3,” an instrumental from 2003’s Transfigurations Of Vincent, opened the encore, with the gorgeous, heartfelt “Fuel For Fire” following, a perfect blend of songwriting and musicianship that only Ward has truly mastered.
The songwriter remained solo for “Here Comes The Sun Again,” another older track featuring an intricate, finger-picked interlude. As the opening notes of “Helicopter” began, the band slowly made their way to their respective instruments, bringing an energetic finale to a near-perfect set.
As though to reinforce the magnitude of the evening, the opener was frequent M. Ward collaborator Jenny Lewis’s new band, Nice As Fuck. The female three-piece opted to perform on the floor of the venue in front of a giant, glowing piece symbol.
With a circle of roughly 50 fans surrounding them, the band performed upbeat, danceable tracks, Lewis walking around the perimeter singing over the bassist and drummer. Intimate and interactive, Nice As Fuck began the evening with nothing short of a spectacle. Big Thief followed immediately on the stage with a 90s influenced alternative sound that focused heavily on dynamic electric guitar.
As a whole, the evening should have surpassed the expectations for both longtime fans and first-timers alike, Ward reinforcing his reputation as a lauded, enigmatic songwriter and artist, standing out above the rest in today’s overcrowded folk scene.
1. Outro (AKA: I’m A Fool To Want You)
2. Radio Campaign (ft. Jenny Lewis)
3. Magic Trick
4. Little Baby
5. Time Won’t Wait
7. Whole Lotta Losin’ (Monsters Of Folk cover)
8. I Get Ideas
9. Primitive Girl
10. Girl From Conjeo Valley
11. Posion Cup
12. Chinese Translation
13. Never Had Nobody Like You
14. Eyes On The Prize
16. Rave On!
18.To Go Home
19. Bean Vine Blues #2 (John Fahey cover)
20. Duet For Guitars #3
21. Fuel For Fire
22. Here Comes The Sun Again