M. Ward has had a peculiar career that has seen fortune vary from a trickle to a flood. He has followed a different path altogether than many of his contemporaries, like Bright Eyes, Cat Power and My Morning Jacket, whose success manifested itself gradually. But now, after his 2012 effort A Wasteful Companion was met with both critical and public acclaim, he can concentrate where many of his plaudits lie: on stage.
I looked down onto a mosaic of heads from the edge of the second-tier balcony. Koko was sweltering. A pensive atmosphere amongst the expectant spectators was almost ominous; it felt much like we were awaiting a 19th-century theatre performance. In fact, I half-expected John Wilkes Booth to burst past the bar behind me. It was just that kind of night, and Conor Oberst’s president, M. Ward, was readying himself for the stage.
A blue light illuminated a previously barren stage to reveal a two-man rhythm section. The pace was set with a shaker and a bass drum, and after thirty seconds, the groove was completed with the inclusion of lapsed bass guitar: 'Post-War' had arrived. At that moment everybody gleamed at the side of the stage, waiting for their fuzzy-haired hero. Then, with his guitar above his head, he arrived. Before the applause could even begin to reach its end, he’d slumped into a slinky guitar solo and everybody soon silenced to hear his voice. Delivered in its darkest guise, an intensity was established to begin the show.
Soon after, we saw the entrance of steel guitar and a shuffle-beat that would have made W.S. Holland proud. It's a kind of barrel-chested Americana that runs through the veins of these musicians, much like Morris-dancing does through mine. This feel was used wonderfully on 'Paul’s Song' and time and time again throughout the show. It’s a natural place for these guys, and how wonderful it was for it to be heard over the rainy streets of Camden.
Though M. Ward wavered between John Martyn-esque traditional folk guitar on 'Clean State' and the aggressive, fixated manner shown at the behest of 'To Save Me,' he did everything with a devilish determination; swapping guitars as the band closed a track, rarely acknowledging anything but his microphone, we watched a master at work. The crowd was truly brought to their rip-roaring loudest at the beginning of the sixth song, when he raised a single finger into the air and 'Poison Cup' ensued. With the audience in a state of shock after many boorish back-to-back tracks, we took our first break. “London, how’s it going?” was met with an accumulative bellow, “This is the last show of the tour.” And after a rye smile, we were thrown straight back into the deep end with a fuzzy heartbeat of obscurely-tuned guitar and the terrific melodies of 'Requiem.' You had to hope M. Ward’s tight-lipped good intent wasn’t misread by a crowd that was probably more used to being buttered-up by onstage antics.
“I’m not going to run for president. I gave it a thought, but there are too many crazy people in America.” His first quip was met with laughter from the audience. Later, “This song is about a woman I thought was crazy; turns out, she was insane.” 'Rollercoaster' was then revealed as his first heartfelt number of the evening, pitted against another bluesy beat from the drums, boasting a lot of soul.
John Fahey and Buddy Holly were saluted by stunning covers, and more originals followed. We heard terrific elements collide. Captivating chord changes, enchanting lyrics and dissonant, expressive guitar began to create a feeling of jubilance within the crowd. The elation could be summed up no better than with the lyrics "I ain’t never had anybody like you" being sung whole-heartedly by everybody, and soon after they all left the stage.
The encore, which we all knew was due to arrive, was quite clearly where the show reached its pinnacle. After beating his guitar to pieces in a fit of anger, M. Ward juxtaposed it with three of his most twee, bittersweet songs, the best of which was 'Sad, Sad Song.' Out on stage alone he managed to encapsulate what is best about what he does. These songs are true folk ditties, the kind of pieces that don’t belong on record. They should be passed down by word of mouth, sung on a porch to your grandkids to ward them off of the neighbourhood bullies; they’re real lessons in catharsis, driven by a true sincerity that is very irregular in modern music. Fittingly enough, after a refreshingly self-deprecating song named 'The Story of an Artist,' we saw drizzly Camden transformed into another American vignette in the form of 'Roll Over Beethoven.'