Guitar Hero: M. Ward at the 9:30

M. Ward at the Glastonbury Festival, 27 June 2009.  Photo by Cavie78; used under Creative Commons license.

M. Ward at the Glastonbury Festival, 27 June 2009. Photo by Cavie78; used under Creative Commons license.

There’s an Old Navy’s worth of sartorial similes in which one could dress the songs of Portland retro-elegist M. Ward. But the one that fits best is to liken them to jeans or T-shirts “distressed” to look and feel older and more lived-in than they really are.

Ward’s ethereal, meant-to-sound-“found” alt-country-rock is soothing and undemanding; just soft-focus enough to hold his spot on the hipper-than-thou Merge Records label. It’s well-crafted. It’s listenable as the day is long. It just isn’t terribly exciting, particularly on a Friday night at an all-standing venue like the 9:30 club.

At the second of two nights at the 9:30, Ward used four tactics to rescue the gig from the over-easiness of much of his songbook:

1) Manage expectations. Ward promised an evening of “new songs and old songs, arranged just so.” No intimations of salvation, no pledges to rock our world ’til the sun comes up.

2) Spike your set with propulsive four-on-the-floor burners like “Helicopter,” which sounds it’s from the 50s, or “Roll Over Beethoven,” which actually is.

3) Confine yourself to a breezy 75 minutes.

4) Be a wilder, raunchier guitar player than your albums have even hinted at.

Ward’s electric guitar is as blotchy and sawtoothed as his voice is diffident and cool. It brought numbers like the opening “Chinese Translation” or the chugging evangelism of “Fisher of Men” into a meaner, more bracing realm, like the obnoxious guest at a stodgy party whose presence helps everyone else relax. (Ward played guitar on only about half the set, spending the balance on piano.)

“Do I recognize some of you from last night? I thought I did,” Ward asked, adding that he’d changed the setlist in deference to the repeat customers.

His four-piece band offered sweet vocal harmonies on a slow-motion cover of “Rave On,” though it was small consolation for the absence of Zooey Deschannel — the She to Ward’s Him — who coos along on the version that appears on this year’s Hold Time album. Ward also covered Louis Armstrong (“I Get Ideas”), Daniel Johnston (“To Go Home”), and Maryland’s own John Fahey, proving at least that his taste is impeccable.

A slightly shorter version of this review appears on Post Rock.

M. Ward at the 9:30 Club, Friday, July 31, 2009

The Setlist

01 Chinese Translation
02 Requiem
03 Rave On
04 Epistemology
05 Some Lucky Night
06 Hold Time
07 Jailbird
08 Poison Cup w/ 100 Million – Paul’s Song – Lullaby & Exile
09 Magic Trick
10 I Get Ideas
11 To Save Me
12 Fisher of Men
13 Nobody Like You
14 Roll Over Beethoven

    ENCORE

15 Helicopter
16 To Go Home
17 Big Boat

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