I guess I really got hooked on M. Ward when I heard his album, Transfiguration of Vincent around the time of its release, if it wasn’t 2003 for me it was early in 2004. I went straight back to hear his first records and I was a fan for the next two as well.
In 2007 I first got to see him. The bar that I’ve now been to more than any other bar or venue – Wellington’s San Fran – had recently been rechristened as the San Francisco Bath House; a forever-venue, it had been Indigo, it had been a strip-club called Stilettos, it had been many things…and I’d known it under some of those former guises, but I’d get to know it really well now that it was the San Fran Bath House and they were getting some good shows. It was just early in the new year of 2007 when I walked from Thorndon down through the city to Cuba Street to see M. Ward. I was pretty pumped. Into it. Looking forward to it, you know – cos I was a fan. And though the then-new album was just out I figured he’d probably do a few from Vincent – maybe even his cover of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, which was on almost every iPod playlist I made back then. Anyway, there’d be some tunes. I dug his voice and his guitar playing and there was likely the chance you’d get to hear and feel even more of that playing live – it would probably be showcased better, right?
Well, the gig was an absolute blinder, on a stinking hot night.
On record M. Ward was being compared to Iron & Wine and Bright Eyes and Sufjan Stevens and Jim White. Those were the contemporaries, seemingly.
But live he was more like John Fahey when he picked at the guitar. And his voice felt like it was a hundred years old. In only the best possible way.
It felt like the early performances from Tom Waits, which I’d only ever read about and heard a few ropey bootlegs. There was some Stephen Grossman in his mastery of the guitar. And the songs from the latest record of the time, Post-War were pretty fucking majestic too.
He added harmonica (Neil Young and Bob Dylan influences popped up, obviously) and when he moved over to the piano to tinkle I thought back to the great Howe Gelb show I’d seen in the same venue, all relaxed and rather wonderful. Jolie Holland too.
Sure enough, the Bowie cover was performed. He introduced it as “an old English love song” and played it like it was a lovely, lonely barstool blues. But there was a joyousness about so many of the songs – Rollercoaster was his feel-good pop song of the time. Great stuff too. But the really special song was his version of Daniel Johnston’s Story of An Artist. He’d recently covered it for that magnificent tribute album, Discovered/Covered (where you got the Johnston originals on one disc, the all-star indie-lineup doing the covers on the other).
It was so hot – this was back when Wellington had proper summers. The bar was packed. People were hanging on his every word. The guitar playing was exquisite. The piano playing was lovely too. But when he sang this song I felt like I was the only person in the room. We probably all felt like that. He was singing it to me. He was singing it to all of us. It was as if he’d written it. But he knew he never could. He knew it was because Daniel Johnston had sung it. And it felt like the ultimate tribute to a very special songwriter. (Flash forward so many years to when Johnston died, late last year, and the first thing I reached for, the first thing I played was M. Ward’s version of Story of an Artist).
Even if he hadn’t done that Daniel Johnston cover on that hot, hot night it still would have been a magic show. What came through was pure artistry. An amazing talent – seeming so humble and low-key too. The music was glorious and the delivery of it flawless. I remember walking home in a daze. I remember spending days after playing all the records in sequence – looking for the clues that it was always going to be this good.
I saw M. Ward again a few years on – and it was this good! Again. It made me forgive him for that awful She & Him collaboration (I understand that now as his cash-grab, if anything. I hope he got a good pay-day from it).
Ward has made many more records and they’re always interesting and mostly good and often great. And I’ll always tune in. Probably because of that show I saw when the walls were sweating, almost heaving a sigh of relief as we all tumbled out to the balcony or down the stairs straight after. (Those shows I saw, in fact). There’s always something in his catalogue for me. But there’s forever the memory that what he could do on a stage, the way he presents it, the talents he has and the way he connects, well…it was one of the best gigs ever. And he was one of the greatest musicians I’ve seen do his thing live.
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