Most bands’ live presence usually offers an either watered down experience of the album or a supercharged one, but for She & Him’s live show, neither takes place and instead we are treated to an extremely alternate dynamic than what we’re used to. The main concern for anyone who hasn’t experienced She & Him live is likely to be that the experience would fall victim to aesthetic over content, and that concern isn’t eased in any capacity when the persistent crowd chatter consisted mainly of “I just think New Girl is such a good show, I just think she’s so cute” and “I love Zooey, she’s so hot”. As a weary concert-goer it’s hard to feel that a She & Him headlining tour could be anything but a cash grab. For M. Ward, the opportunity to relax behind a guitar and bring in twice the crowds he could pull on his own must be a no-brainer. Likewise, for Zooey Deschanel it could seem like a nice way to travel the country for a month or two. But fifteen minutes into their set at Wolf Trap it became very apparent that what we were witnessing wasn’t some cynical concept or a studio creation brought to life, but an honest to God band, and a damn fine one at that.
For the first twenty to thirty minutes of the set the band dished the sure-fire giddy-up AM Gold Pop they’ve been pedaling for years, only supercharged by M. Ward’s locomotive engine of a personality and a backing band that seemed like pros and then some. It became clear by the first few songs that not only is She & Him an entirely different beast live then in the studio, but it’s a beast that M. Ward is in complete and total control of. Perhaps the greatest joy of the whole thing is seeing him no longer trapped behind the front man role that he’s been perfecting for years and instead able to run back and forth across the stage, ripping through guitar solos at will. It was obvious that Ward was thrilled to be there, and seeing his face light up as he directed his band of merry men was half the fun of the show. Every single person on-stage had multiple roles at any point in time, a grand total of eight people all shared instruments with each other. A trio of three incredibly talented musicians especially deserve “most instruments switched and played in one night” award, as they would hand off bass and rhythm guitar duties to each other while one would hop on the pedal steel, the other would take up a violin and pass the bass off to the guy who just got done playing accordion.
And then there was Zooey, planted awkwardly at the front of the stage, standing out as the only one not wearing the matching color scheme and obviously not a cohesive part of the machine that was creating what was coming out of the speakers.
Whether it was due to the Wolf Trap show being the last of the tour, or the fact that she’s not a full time musician on stage, Deschanel seemed to lag behind the band for most of the evening. Her voice never faltered, and musically she was on point, but as a performer she was being upstaged by M. Ward for almost the entirety of the evening. It’s pointless to speculate as to why there seemed to be a total lack of energy from her, but I will say that the very frequent shouts from bro’s high and low of “I love you Zooey” that echoed the halls didn’t make her seem any more comfortable in her already somewhat awkward position.
After the set finished its first quarter boom of songs like “Together” “Baby” and “I Was Made For You”, the soft Nashville-tinged ballads that featured Zooey on piano — Take It Back” and “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today” — brought the energy down enough to let Zooey’s vocals shine, and shine they did. She excelled most when it felt like the stage was somehow transformed into a television special with the backdrop of the stage lit up to look like a dark sky illuminated by stars, glowing bouquets placed throughout the space, and a large spotlight focused on the singer/starlet. Coupled with the nod to Nashville ballads, the night sometimes took on characteristics of a sixties variety show.
The pinnacle of the set came though, when the band exited the stage, leaving and only M. Ward and Zooey remaining at the microphone to sing “You Really Got A Hold On Me” by the Miracles. For the first time all night they were looking at each other for more than just a quick glance and their chemistry finally shone through as their energies matched up for the first time and it’s easy to see how their musical partnership has lasted seven years. It was a beautiful moment and although the backing band were world class musicians and the full ruckus that they conjured up was impressive, everyone in the venue had waited for that soft moment where M. Ward and Zooey stood on stage side by side. After the duet, another particularly sweet moment happened when the two female back-up vocalists joined Zooey around one special vocal mic that had been brought out just for the one off “Unchained Melody” cover, they were only accompanied by sweetly finger picked electric guitar chords from M. Ward.
Then the full band came back out on stage and continued to deliver the full out swinging pop they opened with the show with, but we’d already seen all of their tricks. From the astonishing whistle solo, to the Fender Telecaster look alike Ukulele songs and instrument switching, it started to feel a bit overkill for what were three minute four chord pop songs. The second half of the show included some covers such as NRBQ’s “Ridin’ In My Car” “Rave On” by Sonny West and others, but She And Him’s songs cop so much from music of yesteryear that the entire set could have been covers and the crowd, which only seemed familiar with four or five songs anyway, wouldn’t have known the wiser.
On paper, She & Him on paper seem like a music group that has become successful off of personality alone. And while that might be true, the She & Him live show is defined by talented musicians paying tribute to the music of yesteryear. The truth is that, at least this evening, anyone could have been in Zooey’s role, her performance rarely transcending talented performer/cult-celebrity she has become. But that’s OK, because while the band might be a little bit too polished for their own good — they almost felt like a tribute band at times — She and Him are the type of band you go to see not because the name draws you in, but because it’s guaranteed to be music that makes you happy, and there ain’t nothing wrong with feeling happy.
All photos by Joy Asico (firstname.lastname@example.org / www.asicophoto.com)