By Sam Cleeve
July 2, 2012
M. Ward stands largely solitarily on the folk landscape. With his raspy, world-weary voice ready to go up against the most evocative of storytellers, his utterly unique fingerpicking technique allowing his five digits to work seemingly independently, and the thread of old-time americana running through his music, he’s something of a paragon of his genre. Releases like 2001′s End of Amnesia are almost flawless rainy-day records, solemnly lilting from one self-comforting lullaby to another.
But tonight’s show at London’s KOKO sees Matt Ward pick things up a gear. Joined on stage by a three-man supporting cast (a lap steel guitar player stage right, drummer towards the back, and a lofty gentleman bearing comically striking resemblance to Colonel Sanders at centre-stage), the band tear through numbers like ‘To Go Home’ and A Wasteland Companion cuts ‘I Get Ideas’ and ‘Primitive Girl’ with an unprecedented ferocity. With his neck arched backwards, staring towards the ceiling, Ward sings with an endearing inattentiveness – he doesn’t so much seem to be singing to the audience as to himself. That being said, it’s not self-righteous ignorance – Ward takes time to engage with the crowd throughout the show. We soon learn that it’s the final night of the tour (the word ‘tour’ pronounced almost in two syllables; there’s a Waitsian mystery to that croaking west-coast drawl), which maybe goes some way as to explaining why the four-piece seem to be gunning so hard.
Of course it’s not all full-throttle. More delicate moments come in the form of Post-War’s ‘Rollercoaster’ and ‘Eyes on the Prize’, and at the piano, his cover of Daniel Johnston’s ‘The Story of an Artist’. It’s these moments that are the most enduring in hindsight. Often with just his fingerpicking technique and the creak of his voice to aid performance, alone Ward’s captivating storytelling abilities are greatly magnified. By time he’s rejoined by the band to wrap up a second encore, the set has come full circle, back to the ruthlessness with which it began. Opting to close out by covering Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, the band drift beyond the stage lights leaving a thoroughly satisfied KOKO in their wake. The set may have not fully appeased audience members who’ve previously fallen in love with Ward’s drizzly, jazz-infused lullabies, but a spellbinding gig all the same.