M Ward/Carlos Forester/Mike Coykendall; December 4, 2011; Schubas
I felt like I had won the lottery. Tickets for M Ward’s one-off Schubas show sold out in three minutes, and I had a pair. It was still somewhat of a mystery why he was even playing the much-too-small club on a Sunday night, but I wasn’t questioning it. He’d spent the last few years concentrating on She & Him, a duo with Zooey Deschanel. Surprisingly I don’t despise the band because of Deschanel (who I think is one of the worst actresses ever) or because of their awkward syntax moniker, but because for all the time he spends on that project that means no new M Ward records, and the years since Hold Time have felt like an eternity. He had played a Daytrotter benefit in Rock Island the night before (that I certainly would have been at had I not had Robbie Fulks playing at my house) and we theorized that he was playing the show tonight just because he could. In fact, he called the two night run his “Rock Island Line” tour. And as you may have guessed, that song showed up in the set as part of a terrific encore.
One of the first times I saw M Ward I didn’t like him, I couldn’t figure out why a guy who was supposed to be such an amazing songwriter was playing so many covers. Tonight however I embraced the covers. The aforementioned “Rock Island Line” was fantastic, and “Roll Over Beethoven” was equally inspired. The energy of the entire show is in a large part due to the stellar band Ward assembled for the tour. Longtime sideman and opening act Mike Coykendall was joined by fellow opener Carlos Forester, both on guitar or bass, whatever the song called for, while Scott McPherson was behind the drum kit. A most pleasant surprise was seeing Nashville musician Chris Scruggs on steel guitar (and sometimes other guitars). I had seen the very recognizable Scruggs only once before playing with BR5-49 and instantly fell in love with him.
Last year I saw Jason Collett with Zeus and Bahamas, and Collett who was ostensibly the headliner played the first song of the night. The revolving door of musicians on stage kept it interesting for those who only knew the headliner. While not quite as integrated as that show, the lines between openers and headliner were blurred. Coykendall took the stage first but only played a song or two before calling up McPherson and Forester soon after that. I liked both of them, especially Forester whose gentle voice was hypnotic, and I picked up his new release. Eventually Scruggs joined them and soon after Ward. The duet “Campfire Songs” that he sang with Forester was the highlight of the first half the night.
On previous occasions that I had seen Ward, he’s had the venue request no photography. The Pabst didn’t look for cameras but the politely worded signs were enough to keep me from taking pictures. It seems his time in the spotlight with Deschanel has accustomed him to the attention, and there were no such requests tonight. Still, I hesitated to take more than a handful of pictures and few short videos; sure he would abruptly change his mind if he spotted me. He was still wearing a baseball cap pulled low so that most of his face was in the shadow, but I swear sometimes he was smiling.
I know I was. The set list couldn’t have been better. Other than the exclusion of “Big Boat” (the song that got me into after Ward after that less than amazing show), I heard everything I wanted to, most notably “Chinese Translation” whose forlorn questions like “What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart?” are belied by the lighthearted melody. It’s impossible to pick a second favorite, “Whole Lotta Losin’,” “Never Had Nobody Like You,” “Fisher of Men” and the appropriately titled “Magic Trick” were all terrific. My only complaint was that it was too short, just over an hour. Winning the lottery couldn’t be as good as this.