You get out of a show what you put into it. Whether you come in elated, dejected, fist-pumping, drunk, whatever, your own mood often affects your experience as much as the artist’s performance. I walked into M. Ward on Sunday at the 9:30 Club as a battered long-time fan of our nation’s Capitals, who had watched her team squander a sparkling run of 13 playoff hockey games with one massive clunker of a loss to the NY Rangers the night before - I felt like I’d been kicked repeatedly by a lead boot for 24 straight hours. But when M. Ward quietly entered the stage and opened his set with the acoustic, enchanting “Clean Slate,” it felt like he was placing butterfly stitches on the gaping wounds in my psyche, and the rest of the evening was a sort of restorative magic.
The stage was set with four large windows behind Ward and his backing band, which started out filled with a seemingly static scene of fog over the ocean. As the show progressed, the windows revealed themselves as video screens, with scenes morphing to match the tone of the songs - like a concert with a view. Sometimes a simple set can take on a life of its own, complete with weather patterns. For “Roller Coaster,” the windows rolled a rich, deep fog across the stage; later, the effect was particularly apt behind "Four Hours." As Ward sang about insomnia at two, three, four o’clock in the morning, a series of smaller lit windows took shape in the larger video panels - it truly felt like you were in a car in the wee hours, looking into other people's "normal" lives as you drove by on your own. It was eerie, and fantastic. For “Primitive Girl,” probably the most well-known song on Ward’s new album, the scene rose from a city-scape up into the atmosphere, showing a soupy primordial miasma. Get it? Primitive.
I’m not sure anyone’s a huge fan of 2012’s Wasteland Companion - it’s a hit-or-miss affair of mostly B-side worthy tracks, with a few absolute gems tucked in along the way. It’s unusual to see a performer practically ignore the album he just put out, but Ward played more songs from 2006’s Post-War and 2009’s Hold Time than from the album that came out last month, and no one was complaining. From “For Beginners” to “Never Had Nobody,” the sold-out crowd happily belted out lyrics, made out like they believed that this is our final year on earth, spilled beer all over their plaid shirts, and just had a flat out delightful time of it. When Ward and his band broke out “I Get Ideas,” one of only four selections from WC, the bouncy little mess of a song led quite a few couples to attempt swing dancing on the packed main floor.
We all wish we had boyfriends like M. Ward - he’s sensitive, lyrical, elfin running to pixie-ish, he knows lots of cool people, and he gets to play in bands with those guys from My Morning Jacket. In the group of artists trying to fill the void left by the loss of Elliot Smith, or even Nick Drake, Ward got there first, with his sentimentality tinged with a pinch of Billy Bragg darkness. Sunday’s show ran the gamut of his decade-plus years of making and producing music, with a reeling cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” tossed in for extra flair. Even an abrupt, one-song encore, a key-board drenched version of “Big Boat” from Transistor Radio, couldn’t stop the crowd from lurving all over M. Ward.
So as he says in “Chinese Translation” - which was played in a manner that could only be described as TRUE, with a smoky, stormy backdrop through those incredible windows – “what do you do with the pieces of a broken heart?” If you’re a Caps fan on the day after the playoffs have ended for you early, yet again, you go to an M. Ward concert, and let him fix you. We’ll get ‘em next year, Caps. My new boyfriend just said so.