Review: An intimate evening with M.Ward at Strange Brew

An oft overlooked pleasure in the gig-going pursuit of a favourite artist is that, if your fandom endures for long enough, a descending career trajectory can see one baring witness to heroes in settings surprisingly intimate. On the back of a trio of beautifully anachronistic albums in the mid-2000s and his reaching a new audience as the male half of Zooey Deschanel fronted retro folk duo She & Him, there was a time when Matt Ward enjoyed invites to Glastonbury Festival and packed out shows at venues as sizeable as Shepherds Bush Empire.

Tonight sees the Portland-born singer-songwriter-guitar maestro in front of a fairly sparse crowd in a 330 capacity venue. However, with this summer’s release of twelfth studio album Supernatural Thing, and collaborations with the likes of Swedish folk royalty First Aid Kit, Ward remains a restless creative force. One wonders how significant those sort of live audience figures really are.

‘Poison Cup’, from Ward’s career zenith Post-War album from 2006, is often Ward’s go-to show opener. This version is embellished by his guitarist’s reverbed lead lines, but a rattling fuzziness emanating from the stage is either indicative of this being the first date of a new tour or a temporary disharmony with the venue’s sound. However, by third song ‘Get To The Table On Time’, the song’s playful, old-timey riff and a typically adroit guitar solo from Ward are promising signs that things are warming up.

The usually subdued Ward begins telling the audience that this year is the 20th anniversary of 2003 masterpiece The Transfiguration of Vincent but, before he can even get to the name of the album, he’s cut off by his guitarist communicating to the sound desk. It feels slightly symbolic of Ward still getting to know his all-Aussie bandmates on guitar, bass and drums. Ward then segues into the title track from his latest record; ‘Supernatural Thing’ is a pleasing enough lounge-folk slowburner featuring dual harmonies from his drummer and guitarist.

Though Ward eschews what has become the de-rigueur custom of performing full albums in honour of round-numbered birthdays (Vincent is rather too cult, as opposed to iconic, for that to make much sense), there’s an unusually high representation – seven tracks in all – from the record in question; Ward’s highly unusual vocals (a gruff, sandpapered bluesman with a touch of honeyed sweetness) is most apparent in the “Da Da-da Da” interlude of the sparse and ponderous ‘Sad Sad Song’. The lovely ‘Fool Says’ is a jolly, sub two-minute celebration of finally finding love (“I thought all the good ones had gone/You’re here to tell me I was wrong.”)

With Ward playing alongside what appear to be more socially vocal Australians, there is perhaps a little more audience interaction than expected. And it has a heavy leaning toward the host city; Ward informs us that ‘Primitive Girl’ was recorded in Bristol (at Toy Box studio) for 2012 album A Wasteland Companion, the bass player attempts a Bristolian accent that sounds positively cockney, and we hear of the band enjoying cocktails in Milk Thistle, a local establishment that has apparently experienced the habitual thieving of their Japanese teacups.

Though the full sonics of the band in top gear sound a tad mushy in parts, the gentler moments emanate as beautifully from the stage as one would expect from an M.Ward gig. During ‘Migration of Souls’, Ward’s characterful acoustic picking (oft imitating his hero John Fahey) sits exquisitely within the guitar harmonics and wistful harmonica provided by Irish support act Oisin Leach. The powerful ‘Requiem’ and the majestic epic of ‘Chinese Translation’ are stark reminders of the quality of Ward’s mid-2000s period. The long instrumental passage at the coda of the latter is always an arresting moment at a Ward show.

The final song before the encore is ‘Vincent O’Brien’ – the name of Ward’s deceased friend whom inspired the title of the 2003 album. Following the poignant lyricism (“he only sings when he’s sad/And he’s sad all the time so he sings”), Ward lets his fellow guitarist off the leash as a blistering solo hurtles the song to its conclusion. A four tune encore follows; included is the excellent instrumental ‘Duet For Guitars #3’, a nice surprise in the form of Transistor Radio’s ‘One Life Away’, and a shout out to Australian rock group Cold Chisel (“Aussie royalty”, apparently).

Ward has obviously performed bigger, but also better shows than tonight. However, once the tour gets into full swing, intimate treats await any die hards who have stuck with Matt Ward for so long.

Scott Hammond