There’s something undeniably sexy about a brooding singer-songwriter behind a Gibson Custom Johnny A. guitar. Seeing Matthew Stephen Ward, better known by his stage name M. Ward, live at The Fillmore on Wednesday, April 11 was an experience comparable to frolicking in a field of flowers. If you’ve never listened to M. Ward or frolicked in a field of flowers, you have not yet fully lived.
The opening band was a relatively unknown singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman. Part comedian, part musician, and part ecstatic dancer, Jonathan made the crowd laugh with partially improvised songs about life, love, tai chi, and the “spooky” appeal of Vermeer paintings. If there’s one thing I learned from Jonathan Richman, it’s that the other Dutch artists Rembrandt and Jan Steen don’t even compare to Vermeer and his petite 9” by 13” paintings. Between verses he often dropped his guitar and broke out in bizarre pelvic thrusting movements reminiscent of a jellyfish on psychedelics.
When M. Ward finally came out on stage, the crowd went wild. Though the performances started out a little sleepy, by the end of the night everyone was dancing along (though admittedly not as enthusiastically as Richman’s sweet moves). The show was a good mix of M. Ward’s older hits such as “Requiem,” “Chinese Translation,” and “Fisher of Men,” as well as songs like “Primitive Girl” and “The First Time I Ran Away” off his new album “A Wasteland Companion”, which dropped on April 10. He even threw in some surprise gems like “Whole Lotta Losing” by Monsters of Folk, a supergroup collaboration between M. Ward, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and a Chuck Berry cover of “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Overall, the performance was polished. With touches of violin, trumpet, harmonizing steel guitars, and percussion, M. Ward’s crooning vocals really showed off his potential as a frontman. I had never seen M. Ward perform alone, other than backing up Conor Oberst at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival last year, or as the “He” of She & Him, his side band with the beautiful actress/vocalist Zooey Deschanel. Though M. Ward gives off a very “chill dude” persona, he can definitely hold his own under the spotlight as a solo performer. Even in the plethora of artists of the “introspective-indie-folk-singer-songwriter” scene, M. Ward shines as a talented musician – both in his soulful vocals and his intricate guitar work.
It was also interesting to see the crowd M. Ward attracted to the Fillmore. The patrons varied from young hipsters discussing their upcoming plans for Coachella, middle-aged couples slow dancing in the back of the room, to aged hippies lighting up during the set.
With the glitz of the chandeliers and the perks of free apples and M. Ward posters, the Fillmore was a perfect venue for the show.
For all you lucky individuals attending Coachella this weekend, make sure to check out M. Ward’s set on Friday April 20.