Live Last Night: M. Ward

"Faith in God is happiness" read an inscription on the wall behind M. Ward at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue last night, words that would have provided a fitting backdrop to the transcendental songs on "Hold Time," his just-released album. But Ward didn't focus too much on his new work during an entertaining, but uneven, performance that often found the venue eclipsing the performers.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

It was clear during a stirring opening set from Brooklyn trio Vivian Girls that the beautiful, high-ceilinged venue wasn't going to enhance stripped-down rock dynamics. That wasn't an issue during Ward's opening acoustic numbers, which included his cheeky rendition of David Bowie's "Let's Dance," a thrilling version of Rev. Robert Wilkins' "The Prodigal Son" and Ward's own new country-blues, "One Hundred Million Years."

When the band joined Ward for the Catholic-school boogie-shuffle of "Epistemology," the venue seemed to swallow their burrowing edge -- as well as the velvet scrape of their leader's voice -- and for the remainder of the 70-minute set, it was the languid Ward that translated best. That included the mournful "Undertaker," an aching "Change is Hard" (from the mostly bland She and Him project) and a piano-and-voice reading of Daniel Johnston's "Story of An Artist."

The over-resonating room swamped most of the uptempo material that followed, though "To Save Me" barreled through on sheer emotion. And while hearing new songs like "For Beginners" and "Shangri-La" would have been far better than murky, messy takes on "Poison Cup" and "Magic Trick," if there was anywhere a little atmosphere-to-audio inequity should be forgiven, it was Sixth and I.

The fans who showered Ward with a standing ovation surely seemed to indicate they were already treasuring the gig despite its shortcomings.

-- PATRICK FOSTER

By J. Freedom du Lac |  February 22, 2009; 1:11 PM ET Live Last Night
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