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Let it not be said that M. Ward’s palate doesn’t extend to the underground even as his star continually rises. The last time he stopped in Washington, D.C. he tapped The Vivian Girls as his openers, trusting their DIY fusion of girl group R&B and riot grrrl punk to carry him forward.

This time, he went the same route, asking D.C.’s own punk icon Ian Svenonius and his new outfit (both literally and musically; he donned a soon to be trademarked white suit) Chain and the Gang to open. Svenonius is an unpredictable live frontman, a reputation earned by combining dry wit with the soul desperation of singers like Wilson Pickett. The Gang engages more in his R&B sensibilities and I had a strong expectation coming in that he’d give some of the more lackluster songs on their debut LP more layers. They lived up to it. Svenonius’s off the cuff deadpan social commentary and time worn animal screeching pounded political shack shakers like “I See Progress” and “Deathbed Confession” with a steady King Curtis groove strangled in an intellectual indie rock choke hold.

Just as opening acts can set right energy, sometimes headliners peak early. Rarely does it happen as soon as the first two songs, but that was the case on this night. With Ward involving himself in She and Him and The Monsters of Folk, he’s voluntarily eclipsed his own abilities. Forgetting how good he is on his own can be understandable. For the first 15 minutes of his set it was just Ward on an acoustic guitar. After an extended and intricate instrumental solo, he transitioned to “Fuel for Fire”. At that moment, I would have stood for three hours. He had me convinced there weren’t many people who could sing folk music better in our day and age. Unfortunately, the rest of the evening could not top this stunning opening section of the set. The band came out and shook me out of the trance.

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Ward’s playing was never an issue for any part of the night. He’s a neat and trim live performer who has a laundry list of gifts that surpass his whisper quiet records. He channels Leonard Cohen with his beckoning voice but with more of a salt of the earth graveness. On top of that, he’s a phenomenal guitar player who can enunciate his lyrics with a gruff forcefulness.
His accompaniment didn’t complement any of it very well; they were unnecessarily loud in a way that seldom acknowledged one another. Each member played their own version of a swampy ’70s idea of what ’50s music must have been like and they all had a different idea on the same sound. Commenting on it, my friend noted how when brushing up on his last record, Hold Time, that she had to increase the volume of her iPod to the breaking point. On stage, the tables were turned and a southern rock show for this sort of music was oddly shaped and occasionally off-putting, given the vaporized harmonies Ward’s voice taps into.

“Hold Time” and “Poison Cup” rose above the clashing guitar with Ward peaking his nose and mouth above the discordant melodies, making us grasp at his delivery like a life preserver. Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” also had a front porch strum which gave the lyrics an unforeseen serenity, making the song about quiet love instead of sex. Ending with “Chinese Translation,” most of the set’s problems seemed to be stood on their head as all the musicians took the right posture and elevated one of Ward’s most memorable lines, “What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart,” to a starlit glory.

The encore was an old fashioned affair: two one song encores of “Roll Over Beethoven” and Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home,” both going down with the hatch with good feeling while ending the night without dragging out Ward’s charm to the point of exhaustion. The crowd for its part was phenomenal, giving some of the loudest encore calls I’ve ever heard. Maybe they took a greater appreciation of the presentation but I doubt that any of us would’ve clashed heavily on what we thought of M. Ward himself.

(Photos: Guus Krol and Robin Dua)

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