Live Review: M. Ward at the Belly Up, April 16, 2012

MP3: M. Ward – “Primitive Girl”
Full album stream: M. Ward – A Wasteland Companion

In between Coachella weekends, bands looking to capitalize on their downtime fanned out to L.A., Vegas, San Diego, and elsewhere. By some stroke of luck, San Diego got M. Ward, who played to a sold-out Belly Up crowd last Monday.

When he isn’t the “him” in novelty duo She & Him or a member of the Monsters of Folk supergroup, M. Ward has made quite a name for himself as a purveyor of wistful lo-fi 50’s rock.

If Ward has never broken through to the mainstream, it’s not because he’s failed to produce solid albums over and over again. His 2003 effort, The Transfiguration of Vincent, is probably one of the best albums of that year. A Wasteland Companion, released just a couple weeks ago, is his strongest effort since then.

It was curious, then, when the Portland songwriter seemed reluctant to showcase his new songs onstage. Curious, but not that important. At the Belly Up, Ward and his band gave the audience everything it wanted — from favorites like “Chinese Translation” and “Poison Cup,” to new classics like “Primitive Girl” and “I Get Ideas.” At one point, when Ward introduced “Never Had Nobody Like You” as a singalong, he almost did it facetiously: the audience had been participating since he played the night’s first note.

Ward also played a handful of songs without the help of his backing band. Walking back and forth across the stage, he kicked off a mini solo set with the impeccably played instrumental, “Duet for Guitars no. 2,” followed by “Eyes on the Prize,” and then “Clean Slate” — Wasteland‘s emotional, Alex Chilton-dedicated opening track.

Ward’s lengthy setlist also included “Fisher of Men” (complete with Johnny Cash tease), a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” (complete with duck walk), and finally, “Vincent O’Brien,” a fan favorite and overall standout song of the 2000s. Although the song purports to be about the death of a close friend (Ward has never divulged the details), Vincent O’Brien could have easily been Ward’s twin brother. The song’s themes seem to fit the songwriter perfectly:

He only sings when he’s sad,
but he’s sad all the time, so he sings the whole night through.
Yeah, he sings in the daytime, too.

Variations of that theme include “he only dreams when he’s sad,” and “he only laughs when he’s sad.” This song — especially when combined with Ward’s world-weary stage presence and “no photos” policy — reinforced the perception that he’s a reclusive genius. My guess is that the hardworking Ward also pretty much writes and sings nonstop: the whole night through, and in the daytime, too.

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