Tue, 08/28/2012 - 5:44 am

It was some lucky night. I got to see M. Ward perform at the Boulder Theatre. He has a new album out, A Wasteland Companion. It’s safe to say that Ward is devoted to his craft. Wasteland is Ward’s seventh studio LP since 1999. Some of Ward’s other work includes a successful side project, She & Him, with Zooey Deschanel on vocals. She & Him has so far produced two LPs and a Christmas album. She & Him sounds like sweet 60’s pop, full of heartache and sunshine. Furthermore, Ward is one of the members from the super-group Monsters of Folk, which includes Jim James of My Morning Jacket and members of Bright Eyes.

I don’t want to get caught up in stupid categorizations, but most would agree that Ward is in love with American Rock n’ Roll pioneers, musicians like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. (Ward has, for example, covered Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”) And this may not be what you think of when you hear “Chuck Berry,” but Ward’s albums have a soft tender quality, full of haunting melodies. At times, it’s as if he’s whispering sad lullabies in your ear. It’s personal, confessional and emotional. He’s a notably talented and sincere songwriter; and, in addition to that, his guitar work is outstanding –excellent. The body of work is loaded with real musicianship. The songs are subtly and superbly orchestrated. And it’s varied, both steeped in Americana and universal –from western roots to modern soaring skies.

The theatre was of course filled with eager fans, but it was not ridiculously crowded. The crowd was youngish to about middle aged. They were good normal folks and true music fans. First, the night began with an interesting and somewhat eclectic opener called Princess Music. Along with the front man on guitar and the drummer and bass player, there was a cellist and violinist. They had good musical energy. The singer (clearly skilled on lead guitar) worked hard up there and did a good job delivering to the crowd.

Then, what we’ve been waiting for, Ward took the stage. His band came out first: bass, drums, keys, and rhythm guitar. Ward immediately followed wearing a casual black, collared shirt. Cheers were coming from the crowd. Ward got his guitar ready, and he got right to business.

The first song was “Post-War” from the 2006 album of the same name. This quiet opener was just Ward on guitar while the drummer provided a soothing beat. The song goes, “I know when everything feels wrong. I got some hard, hard proof in this song. I’ll know when everything feels right, some lucky night –some lucky night.” It’s an aching and nostalgic song. The audience was totally engaged and would remain that way for the whole evening.

The second song, the first with the whole band, was “Paul’s Song” from 2005’s Transistor Radio.  It’s such a lonesome song. I picture an empty Hank Williams bar in some lost nameless town on the road. The country twang of the guitar cries in the background while Ward sings about the sky falling and a heart left out in the pouring rain.

After that, Ward strummed his guitar as he went into “Clean Slate,” i.e., the opening track from A Wasteland Companion –a slick, shadowy, and hopeful song.

The first three songs were wonderful, but it started to pick up more with a song called “Watch the Show” from Wasteland. The song is heavier, and it moved forward like a mean mid-tempo locomotive. The lyrics have a dark and desperate theme that has to do with media, reminding me of films like Videodrome and Network, which portray sleaze-balls, cutthroats and mass manipulation –stories where the individual trying to hold onto his soul is coldly left behind and lost.

“To Save Me” from Hold Time (2009) pounded, and people were swaying and dancing. Then Ward played “Four Hours in Washington” from Transistor Radio. I felt better listening to “Four Hours” because I’ve been battling something like insomnia recently; the song describes a restless night that sounds too familiar to me. Ward, soon after, went into “Poison Cup,” a favorite from Post-War. “Poison Cup” was strong live, delivered with a boiling gusto. We heard “Sad, Sad Song” from 2003’s Transfiguration of Vincent. “Sad, Sad Song” demands as much from its listeners as an old blues song does. And there was “I Get Ideas” from Wasteland, which is actually a jazz standard performed by greats like Louis Armstrong.

Ward’s guitar began erupting more and more. And, even though the same aggressive, gritty, soaring and almost distorted guitar happens on recordings like “Me and My Shadow,” this sort of instrumentation is what really made the live experience worthwhile. Forget about a slickly produced CD –this folk-rock show did get dirty, and it was pretty awesome.

Other great songs we heard were “Helicopter” from Transformation of Vincent. (The percussion sounds like W. S. “Fluke” Holland – i.e., Johnny Cash’s drummer – is playing it.) And there was “Requiem” and “Rollercoaster,” both from Post-War.

After “Rollercoaster,” Ward stopped to say hello and mention this was his first time playing in Boulder. He stood up there with his black wavy hair, shocked with gray on the sides, discussing the area’s beauty. It was a cool little moment between Ward and the crowd.

Ward then played Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” which is a track on Hold Time. And, from Post-War, “Chinese Translation,” I can still hear the song in my head… “What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart?” And then there was “Never Had Nobody Like You” from Hold Time. Lastly, before the encore, Ward finished with “Primitive Girl” –the melodic single from Wasteland shimmered.

The first encore was just Ward on an acoustic guitar, sublimely strumming and slapping and shredding it up like a madman, hypnotizing the crowd for what had to be at least 5 to 10 minutes.

The second and last encore was with the whole lineup, but Ward jumped on the keys this time, and they played “Big Boat” from Transistor Radio. Ward pounded away on the keyboard, and the place was rocking; the theatre rocked back and forth, and it was “enough to bring the party down.”

The lights came on and everybody exited the theatre. People gathered outside under the marquee, and then they eventually began to disperse under the starry nighttime sky. They went home or off to an early morning adventure knowing that they just experienced a fine and true performance –good stuff. And everybody felt and knew that it was a night well spent, a lucky night, with M. Ward at the Boulder Theatre.

Mon, 09/24/2012 - 4:29 pm

Chris Robinson, front man for The Black Crowes, has been touring around with a band he calls The Chris Robinson Brotherhood. It’s wonderful to see such a prominent figure like Robinson play in intimate venues like the Fox, close up, starting from scratch. The Brotherhood sounds a lot like The Grateful Dead. Apt since Robinson recently toured as part of a trio with Bob Weir, front man for The Dead, and singer/songwriter Jackie Greene. The Brotherhood is tight, and they boogie and rock n’ roll. It sounds bluesy and soulful and, with the keys, it’s even jazzy at times. And several people that I talked to at the show felt that this authentic display of music is Robinson’s best work thus far.

Robinson is lead vocals and rhythm (and sometimes lead) guitar. Neal Casal is on lead guitar and vocals.  Adam MacDougall is on keys and vocals. George Sluppick is on drums. And Mark Dutton is playing a vintage looking bass and vocals.

Incense smoldered as it leaned out of an owl shaped holder perched on the stage where The Brotherhood appeared, looking like a pack of genuine hippies. They began playing a song called Tomorrow Blues. A lyric I like from the song goes, “Been on the road so long my shoes turned to sand.” They transitioned into a minor jam and into Mother of Stone, i.e., the Chris Robinson and New Earth Mud song.

After Mother of Stone, Robinson greeted the audience with his signature charm and wit, something about having been on “frontier adventures” and being able to sit around the campfire “to share our musical tale.”  

Then the band took on Bob Dylan’s Tough Mama, which had a funky sound. Robinson impressively helped on lead guitar, and the music grooved. After Tough Mama, we heard a sad beautiful contemplative Brotherhood song called Beware. Then, after a song that sounded like Little Feat, Brotherhood went into a cover called Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham. A lyric goes:

I ran out of transportation funds, I had to hitchhike

I caught me a ride with a tattooed dude on a motorbike

People gonna know when I’m in town

Heads are gonna turn when they hear my sound

Nancy Sinatra had also covered Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham too –fun.

Next, they played a great Crowes song, Appaloosa from 2009s Before the Frost…Until the Freeze. After that they finished the set with a song called Tulsa Yesterday. Again, people experiencing this show were reminded of The Dead. We were on a journey: instrumentals, harmonizing, multiple changes on keys and guitar, “space,” poetic guitar work, thumping beats, and guitar driven jams that – when Chris and Neal play together – are as real as the Allman Bros.

The second set jumped with Saturday Night in Oak Grove, Louisiana, i.e., a Tony Joe White cover. The following song is called Star or Stone. It seems beautifully written. Maybe I’m reaching here, but lyrically the beginning seems to be an allusion to or simply describe a scene from Christ’s story:

I was 13th at the table when the wine was passed around

Amid an air of suspicion my glance was met with callous frowns

After the first few stanzas, the lyrics seem to become a lonesome piece of poetry. Mid-song, the group jammed, and the motoring and souring guitar work was outstanding. The Brotherhood then played Sunday Sound, another New Earth Mud song –“Just like water on the ground, we will find our way!

The following song was a definite highlight; they played The Dead’s West L.A. Fade Away –the crowd was really digging it!

They played two or three more songs, amongst them was Little Lizzie May, a hot Crowes number, and The Sorrows of a Blue-Eyed Liar, a sober, desperate and beautiful sounding ballad-like song. The last song was Rosalee, which was extended, full of changes and musical twists and turns. The Rosalee keys are funky, and it rocked and rolled, and then there was space – sounding like stardust confetti in the void – and it found its way back, grooving and shaking.

The encore started off instrumentally, with Hot Buttered Biscuit, and I swear, there and throughout the night, especially from that keyboard, I heard Herbie Hancock and Cannonball Adderly in between the windswept guitar rock. Then they covered That’s How Strong My Love Is, and it was real good soul. The last one was Muddy Water –rock n’ roll, baby!

I know Robinson is a big deal, and he doesn’t need to worry; he will always have an audience. However, the feeling is that he’s still a very underrated talent. He’s got a great distinct voice, and apparently he is quite skilled on his guitar, and he’s a great performer who truly does what he’s passionate about. The music is both a nod to all great American music and authentic for the now; Robinson and the people he surrounds himself with make it their own. They own it, and it feels great to be apart of it.