M. Ward should have been the commencement speaker at my college graduation instead of the blindingly sequined, paperback-writing, thriller novelist swami who dispensed the sole pearlescent aphorism of “Give ’em hell!” before talking mostly about shoes, and not even as a metaphor. She shall remain nameless, but her address to the most universally disrespected college (Liberal Arts) of a proudly engineering-dominated school (Cal Poly)
did little to swell us grads’ hopes for the future, nor predict a future beyond the vague ellipses of the day. Whereas Ward is the most successful Cal Poly graduate that none of the current students have ever heard of (as is standard in that beachside culture when your name isn’t Jack Johnson), and more taciturn (that’s an understatement), his grace conjured more eloquence than the swami on Saturday at Central Park Summerstage. And at least he didn’t talk about stilettos.
Ward, of numerous solo albums and She & Him with Zooey Deschanel, was rumored to hate the school and escaped to Portland in reactionary disgust. But his newer trails suit him; on Saturday evening, he grinned while greeting Central Park Summerstage, the final stop of his recent tour (in support of this year’s folk sundry Hold Time). The hoarse singer-songwriter seemed pleased by the recent experience– “I can’t think of a better place to end this tour than Central Park” he said with a rare laugh, pointing to the beautiful Rumsey Playfield surroundings. Whereas workaholics Mike Watt & Nels Cline had jammed indiscriminately before, perhaps trying to taunt soggy, adjacent All Points West with a real Summer of Love redux, Ward exuded a quiet, content momentum, opening with the funereal pensiveness of “Sad Sad Song” and rolling into his version of an Americana party, drawing heavily from the seeping uptempo catchiness of Hold Time and 2006’s Post-War.
The picnicking crowd was boisterous but polite–no airborne anything, unlike the end-of-days pool party scenes at Williamsburg Waterfront. Ward seemed happy, at least, twitching into smiles with a readiness he hasn’t before exhibited. Maybe the fresh air did him good; maybe the merriment stemmed from another concluding chapter. It made sense, anyway, his example of learning from the present.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 3, 2009