I imagine M. Ward has been described, once or twice, as an “old soul.” The Portland singer/songwriter earned cultural currency by ignoring it, and his timelessness was on full display Tuesday night at Page Auditorium. Lee Ranaldo, who opened the show with a set of songs drawn mostly from his recent album Between The Times and the Tides, was a worthy foil, highlighting the differences between his late-‘70s art-rock influences and Ward’s more thoroughly aged ones.
A veteran of Sonic Youth, Ranaldo extracted harsh tones and pitchy textures from his instrument without losing his grounding in solid pop structures. His performance called to mind early R.E.M., Wilco, and of course, the more structured side of his famous band, whose lineage he put on display near the end of the set, bantering about No Wave bands such as Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and DNA before launching into a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel.”
These 30-year-old points of reference are basically newborns compared to Ward’s early-Americana aggregate. Though he’s 18 years Ranaldo’s junior, Ward’s music conveys a more grown-up air, at least on the surface. This was especially true at the outset of his performance. When he strolled out a few minutes after 9:30, his band rolled gently into a faithful rendition of “Post-War,” the title track of Ward’s 2006 album. Something—the soft, raspy croon; the slow shuffle and shimmering guitars—made me think, half-jokingly, of a male Norah Jones. But sometimes truth appears in jest.
Like Jones, or more recently, Adele, Ward is a well-practiced craftsman with a deep well of musical influences from which to draw. For Jones, it’s jazz standards; for Adele, it’s soul; and for Ward, it’s the popular song of pre-Beatles America. Where the three meet is in their ability to translate dated source material into compelling contemporary pop. Why Ward hasn’t yet commanded the sales figures of Jones or Adele is puzzling to me.
From “Post-War,” Ward shot into graceful country blues, playing with crisp professionalism and plenty of Sun Studios-style slapback, but not much excitement. The hall granted a warm natural reverb to the understated swells of the music. This was the result of Page Auditorium’s stature—it’s a tall room on a relatively small base, which means that its efficient balcony seating is conducive to restless leg syndrome as well as captivating sonic clarity and depth. Sometimes we all must make sacrifices.
Had Ward’s set carried on in the same relaxed manner, it would have been a fine, if largely unmemorable gig. But the tide shifted seven songs in, when his bandmates left the stage and Ward picked up his acoustic guitar alone. I’m partial to the comparatively rough, acoustic sound of Ward’s 1999 debut, Duet For Guitars #2, so this instrumental blues number perked me up. It seemed to perk up Ward as well, establishing a new custom for the remainder of the show: whenever he got particularly excited, he’d take long strides about the stage, stepping well beyond the borders of his spotlight. At the end of the song, the audience—which had greeted each tune so far with eager, if polite, applause—erupted in cheers.
That jolt of energy lasted out the night. “Me and My Shadow” and “I Get Ideas,” from Ward’s April album A Wasteland Companion, were particularly rousing. The former channeled Tom Waits as Ward’s sandpaper croon grew coarser, and his band amplified the drama in the song. Sans She & Him duet partner Zooey Deschanel, the thrumming rocker turned into a bright blaze. “I Get Ideas,” likewise, gained a starker edge, drawing smirking countrypolitan innuendo and come-hither lounge/exotica from the record’s comparatively jaunty pop.
The most dramatic revision, though, might have come in the form of “Requiem.” Taken from the midsection of Post-War, the song’s recorded form is a slick collision of ‘40s pop and blues. Live, its driving force was a thundering bass riff, courtesy of Mike Coykendall. As Ward stalked in the shadows, Coykendall let his bass line pound ominously, and guitarist Chris Scruggs added honky-tonk fuel to the fire, while drummer Scott McPherson pounded harder and harder, summoning up spirits from Les Paul to Buddy Holly. By the time Ward walked offstage around 11, he had proven that traditional means can still churn up an energy as tangible as Ranaldo’s newer techniques.