M. Ward with Devotchka
Bowery Ballroom, NYC, April 10, 2005
Ahh, the Bowery Ballroom. Sure, it’s tough to find–buried wwayyy downtown, in the only spot of New York that can be considered even slightly remote. But the sound is remarkable, by far the best in the city. This was evident by the strains of accordion flooding my ears from the sidewalk in front of the theater, a crystal-clear Eastern European shuffle that, as I climbed the stairs to the main floor, were identified as Devotchka, the first of two openers for M. Ward.
A dazzling quartet from Colorado who don’t focus on folk, or indie, or jazz but melds each equally in fascinating fashion, Devotchka owned the crowd from the start. The group’s singer, Nick Urata, sipping a bottle of wine as romantically as he propelled his starry voice across the spring night sky, spear-headed his group’s collection of urgent and lovelorn anthems as the collective shifted instrumentation all night. Pulling songs from their latest album, How it Ends (mp3), Devotchka had us all from the beginning. The theater’s perfect sound ensuring the beautiful transluscentry that Devotchka’s music deserves, it was all too tragic that the group had to depart, removing all the twinkly piano, starlit melody, and plaintive beauty from the air as quickly as they’d devoured our hearts.
But there were headliners to go on, and when M. Ward stepped on stage all crazy curly Paul Simon hair and dirty boots, immediately finger-picking his way through “Transfiguration No. 1,” it was evident that the immediacy found on Ward’s records is really just Ward himself. He speaks in the same tone he sings–soft and vague, cracking into a gruff upper-register at times. But he plays the guitar like any championed folk singer, balancing tender acoustic songs with full-band assaults (band being the superb Norfolk & Western). It was unclear whether or not Ward could recreate the vocal quality of his records when the band emerged for the first time on Transfiguration of Vincent‘s “Helicopter,” as he avoided the chorus-ending falsetto in favor of a slowly-swooping melody. But as the set went on he warmed–by the time he came out for the first of two encores (the first being solo, the second with the band), he recreated “Dead Man” as if “When you die it ain’t the end / It ain’t the end when you die” was a piece of sage advice held closely–Ward sang the song as if it were his last. He threw us for a loop by using a vibraphone to re-create the melody of “Undertaker,” and surprisingly got noisy on “Sad, Sad Song.”
One of the truly good guys, Ward shared conversation with crowd-members and had to be pushed off-stage before finally relenting, sending us back into the Manhattan night fulfilled. And though somehow I wound up circling Brooklyn lost at 2 A.M., I could still hear Ward’s voice–the perfect companion to your loneliest moments and, by all accounts, one of the most painful and beautiful assets in music.
M. Ward’s latest album, Transistor Radio, is available now from Merge Records.