M. Ward (photo: Joshua Huver)
On Friday night, M. Ward and his unique introspective brand of awareness returned to the Bay Area for an hour and a half show at the newly-opened UC Theatre in Berkeley.
Kicking the night off was a three piece post-punk outfit going by the name Nice As Fuck. You might have heard of them recently in Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, as their under-the-radar debut album has been making waves underground for at least three weeks. Nice As Fuck is the latest explosion of creativity from Jenny Lewis, a mastermind of the former Rilo Kiley and a slew of independent projects since. Also featuring Erika Forster from Au Revoir Simone and Tennessee Thomas of The Likes, Nice As Fuck didn’t set up onstage; they opted to set their gear up in the middle of the GA floor space and get right in the thick of all the crowd. A six-foot peace sign lit up by Christmas lights and an incessant drumbeat had the energy at 11 as Lewis and company barreled through all nine songs from their self titled debut album. Nice As Fuck pushes awareness forward with every song — even down to the 45 second “NAF Theme” with which they closed their half-hour set: “We’re nice, as fuck! We shoot, good luck!”
Behind the positively upbeat and ultimately hopeful yearning in their lyrics, Forster and Thomas do an excellent job of holding a deep, dark groove around an old-school drone. While this project could be short-lived and spur-of-the-moment, it captures a truly raw emotion that is flooding the streets.
M. Ward, however, tells you what’s on his mind, not necessarily the streets. Taking the stage at 9pm sharp, Ward and his band ran through 19 songs in just over an hour.
The set opened with a take on Billie Holliday’s “I’m A Fool To Want You” from 2009’s Hold Time before returning to the original conceptualization of the Post-War “Magic Trick,” i.e., without the re-written female accompaniment he introduced for Zooey Deschanel. The first new song of the evening, “Time Won’t Wait” from More Rain was met with more applause than tears.
Another side project saw its way into the set list as Ward moved into “Whole Lotta Losin” from 2009’s eponymous Monsters Of Folk album with Jim James and half of Bright Eyes. A return to 2012’s A Wasteland Companion brought the crowd “I Get Ideas” and “Primitive Girl” before the first single from the new album, “Girl From Canejo Valley,” was brought out to high acclaim from the audience.
“Never Had Nobody Like You” returned to 2009’s Hold Time of the evening and the energy behind the guitar solo continued going back in time with “Eyes On The Prize” which melted into “Rollercoaster,” both from 2006’s Post-War, before the band returned to 2009 for “Rave On,” a cover of the 1957 classic by Buddy Holly. The band ended the show with”Bean Vine Blues No. 2,” a song Ward recorded for a a tribute album for the late John Fahey, one of Ward’s personal guitar heroes and a primary life long inspiration.
Only an hour had passed, but Ward thanked the crowd, and lead the band off stage. The last time I had this gut-wrenching feeling of “No! What? Already?” was an ultimately disappointing hour-long Ratatat set last fall in Michigan which I left a Chicago festival early to catch. Fortunately tonight was different for several reasons:
For one, the songs were stretched out and featured Ward actually tapping into an old sound to bring new life to the stage. The musicianship of everyone on stage was on point and Ward was especially working incredibly hard to bare his soul in sharing his songs with us, and most importantly, he came back for another half an hour encore. He left several in crowd holding their breath by ending the entire show before 10:30pm, regardless.
The first song of the encore gave even more false hope when Lewis joined the stage for a riveting performance of Transistor Radio‘s “Radio Campaign,” but left immediately following. A rare performance of “Vincent O’Brien” from 2003’s The Transfiguration of St. Vincent followed by “Helicopter” from the same album.
The show ended on an ultimately positive note with “To Save Me,” another Hold Time track with the repeated sentiment “God, it’s great to be alive.” It’s really hard to argue with that.