Live: M. Ward and Vivian Girls at the Apollo

M. Ward and Vivian Girls Apollo February 19

I suppose M. Ward has Zooey Deschanel to thank for his first ever gig at the Apollo Theater last night. Volume One, the debut record from She & Him--Ward's much-feted (and highly over-rated) collaboration with Ms. Deschanel--sold 123,000 copies, far more than any of Ward's own albums. She & Him conquered last year's top ten lists, splashing Ward and Deschanel on magazine covers, and giving Ward, a guy known for his reserve, more face-time with the media then he ever could have managed on his own.

Thankfully, Ward felt no need to wheel Zooey out for a guest appearance last night, no need to appease the fans won over by She & Him's cutesy odes to Patsy Cline. Deschanel, along with Lucinda Williams and Granddaddy's one-time frontman Jason Lytle, all sing a chorus or two on Ward's excellent new record Hold Time (released on Tuesday). The Apollo show could have quite easily become the M. Ward and Friends hour. Yet besides Brooklyn pals Oakley Hall on back-up for a handful of tunes, this was Ward's night.

Though first to contend with were the Vivian Girls. Having the Girls and their Ramones-cum-Shangri-Las racquet open up for M. Ward's four-track folk was, to say the least, an odd juxtaposition. But amid the hallowed halls of the Apollo, there was something almost blasphemous about the relentless klang-klang of Cassie Ramone's reverb-drenched guitar. And the Girls' stage banter--though endearing in its own way (Cassie describing a trip to Amsterdam: "We bought socks with pot leaves on them." Kickball Katy: "Some of them had ladies with leaves on their special parts." Cassie: "Ooh, you just said 'special parts'!")--was, as my companion pointed out, better suited to the Cake Shop than the Apollo.

It was something of a relief, then, when Ward walked onstage some 45 minutes later to serenade his 30-something audience with nothing but his guitar and a harmonica. Dressed unassumingly in black jeans and a flannel, Ward launched into "Hold Time"--the title track from his new record. On disc, the song is ripe with juicy strings and glowing synths. Live, Ward whittled the arrangement down to his guitar and harmonica, and yet the song lost nothing of its heft, or the haunting power of its last line: "I wrote this song just to remember the endless summer in your laugh."

Throughout the night, Ward alternated between solo outings and sets with Brooklyn pals Oakley Hall and his four-man backing band. When the whole crew got together, as they did on Daniel Johnston's "To Go Home" and Buddy Holly's "Rave On," Ward functioned less like a solo artist and more like a bandleader, rallying the troops through the songs' every crest and valley. But the evening's true center of gravity lay in Ward's solo performances. Seeing him pace the stage, hunched over his acoustic guitar and banging away at those inimitable John Fahey riffs until the speakers fizzled and popped, Ward's band, even his own voice, seemed entirely superfluous.--John S.W. MacDonald


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