M. Ward at First Avenue, 5/24/12
First Avenue, Minneapolis
May 24, 2012
M. Ward took his fans on a tour up and down the radio dial, both past and present, during his vibrant 90-minute set at First Avenue. His classic, timeless songs as well as some choice, spirited covers were filled out by a cracking four-piece band alongside him, with Mike Coykendall on bass/guitar, opener Chris Scruggs (grandson of Earl Scruggs) on guitar/bass/violin, Scott McPherson on drums, and Bright Eyes' Nate Walcott on keys and trumpet. They all helped bring an added edge and strength to Ward's occasionally delicate material, which turned this last show of their current U.S. tour into a triumphant, celebratory affair.
Coykendall and McPherson took to the stage first, laying down a groove that Ward slowly turned into the smoky strains of "Post-War" as soon as he joined them. It was a riveting start, and it only got better once Scruggs and Walcott filled in for a sprightly version of "For Beginners" that really took on an added depth with the full band, especially with Walcott's subtle trumpet strains.
The stage was kept mostly dark all evening, with spotlights frequently shining on the rest of the band but not Ward himself, who would be shrouded in shadows throughout the performance. But the three windows set at the back of the stage were lit up with images of the sky at different stages of the day, birds, and city apartments, which augmented the swelling atmosphere of the songs, and gave the impression that the First Ave. stage was just a secluded room in the peaceful countryside.
As this was the last show of the tour, Ward and his band were in fine form and quickly went from one song to the next during the breathless set. That expert pacing, as well as the stellar song selection, really made the performance swing, and the group was clearly enjoying themselves throughout. "Poison Cup" was transformed into a spirited number with the full band, as was "Me And My Shadow" and "Watch The Show," the first two tracks played from Ward's stirring new record, A Wasteland Companion.
"How's it going, Minneapolis," Ward asked emphatically before a truly dynamic rendition of "Requiem" that really had the band and the crowd rocking. Scruggs picked up the violin on a playful, jaunty version of "Rollercoaster," which was quickly followed by a stirring rendition of "Helicopter" from Ward's 2003 classic, Transfiguration Of Vincent. It seemed that Ward really had grown comfortable with the room at this point, as he charmingly told the crowd, "It's a great pleasure to be back at the First Ave" before the band charged into the lively Monsters Of Folk track "Whole Lotta Losin.'"
After a simmering version of "Clean Slate," a moody but moving rendition of "Chinese Translation" followed, as a starry night sky was projected in the windows, adding to the tracks dark ambiance, a theme which only continued on the insomniac's lament, "Four Hours In Washington," which the band truly turned into a foot-stomper. Things got a bit lighter on the crowd singalong, "Magic Trick," and a sparkling version of "I Get Ideas," which sounded like it came straight out of a dusty jukebox in an Old West tavern.
Ward was gracious the entire performance, and spoke warmly to the crowd as the main set drew to a close: "Thanks a lot. It's been a beautiful day here in Minnesota, as you can see from these windows behind us. But the sun is coming up soon and we gotta go. But we've got time to sing a Buddy Holly song for you first." And with that, everybody started swinging during "Rave On," which featured an extended hoe-down version of John Fahey's "Bean Vine Blues Pt. 2" during the coda, which blended smoothly into an electric version of "Fisher Of Men," which was one of the night's many highlights.
The energy level was kept quite high, as the rousing trio of closing songs really had everyone smiling and singing along. "Never Had Nobody Like You," was boisterous and bouncy, while Ward's current single "Primitive Girl" really took on extra muscle in a live setting, and featured a raucous guitar solo by Matt at the end of the feisty number. The main set ended with a cover (a theme which would be revisited frequently during the encores), as Ward and the boys tore through a rambunctious version of Daniel Johnston's "To Go Home," that saw the band off to a rousing ovation.
Ward brought the group back out quickly, and again spoke sincerely to the crowd, "Thanks so much, Minneapolis. We picked a good place to close this chapter of our American tour." He then hilariously confessed to finally throwing away the stray black sock that has been in the hallway of their tour bus the last few weeks. But then it was back to business, as the band busted out the Elvis classic, "Such A Night," which featured lovely trumpet work from Walcott, which gave the song a bit of a Latin flavor. And absolutely on fire version of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" quickly followed, and ended the first encore with an emphatic bang.
The large crowd clearly wanted more, and didn't stop cheering long after the band left the stage, so Ward came back out solo for a riveting run through of "Duet For Guitars #3," which once again showcased Matt's deft guitar work. The rest of the group came out to join him one last time for an animated version of "Big Boat," which brought the night to a close. Ward and his truly talented band really gave the crowd a lesson in the restorative power of music, both new and old, and surely his infectious songs were ringing in everyone's ears as they made their way home in the night.
Personal Bias: I've been a big M. Ward fan since Transistor Radio came out, but other than a few She & Him shows, I haven't seen Matt play live since 2009.
The Crowd: Damn near a full-house, and one of the more polite First Ave. audiences I've come across in a while.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Look at all of those beautiful guitars on stage."
Random Notebook Dump: Chris Scruggs easily won over the crowd during his engaging opening set, and made quite a few new fans in the process (especially after playing with M. Ward as well). The young man has plenty of talent and amazing bloodlines.
Me And My Shadow
Watch The Show
Whole Lotta Losin'
Four Hours In Washington
I Get Ideas
Rave On (Buddy Holly)
Bean Vine Blues Pt. 2 (John Fahey)
Fisher Of Men
Never Had Nobody Like You
To Go Home (Daniel Johnston)
Such A Night (Elvis Presley)(First Encore)
Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry)(First Encore)
Duet For Guitars #3 (Second Encore)Big Boat (Second Encore)
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