M. Ward

M. Ward


It dawned on me in about 2004 that several of my favourite bands and musicians were signed to the same label, Merge Records, so I decided to splash out on the then-recent 3-CD compilation Old Enough To Know Better: 15 Years of Merge Records. As a kid I’d been given a Now! compilation, but I’m fairly sure that Old Enough was the first comp I’d bought with my own money. As it turned out, one of my favourite tracks on that entire, spectacular Merge set was a rather strange, woozy, folky and lo-fi recording entitled ‘Outta My Head’ by the musical artist known as M. Ward. I soon became a fan.

All this time later, (Matt) Ward is still signed to Merge Records, and tonight’s the night that I’m at his live show at Gorilla. For the first time, following previous solo shows years ago, he has brought a full band with him to Manchester – a band playing guitars, bass, drums and keys; y’know, the usual band gear. I’d been expecting Ward to be primarily here to plug his new record, More Rain, but he tells us that it’s a night to celebrate an old album and play plenty of even older songs as well as new ones.

The production of Ward’s records is somewhat important to their overall appeal because he’s heavily into recording onto analog tape and the use of crackly and vintage sounds to accompany his accomplished guitar playing and his warm and slightly creaky tenor vocals. The live show is kind of different in that respect, although it’s the lush guitars and softly building atmosphere of opening number ‘Outro (AKA I’m a Fool to Want You)’ that are key to my enthusiastic reaction to it. I’m reminded of the stunning recording by labelmates Lambchop of ‘Interrupted’.

Tonight’s show is the band’s first European date of the tour. In fact, their flight only touched down a matter of hours ago, and in a sleep-deprived state of adjusting to new surroundings and time zone, Ward comments that we in the crowd “look like ghosts… which is no bad thing”. A few of the songs have an appropriate jetlag dreaminess to them, but I deduce from the number of songs played from the lively Post-War record that the 2006 release must be the album Ward alluded to celebrating tonight.

Ward’s words are delivered in an expressive croon and often with clever, cliché-free phrasing about matters of the heart. Backing him, the musicians swap instruments pretty regularly, although notably multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey, who was a constant with R.E.M. every time I saw that band live, sticks to bass guitar for the night. I gather that tonight is McCaughey’s first show with the band. Some songs are stripped right back instrumentally, sometimes to just Ward’s guitar. During ‘Duet for Guitars #3’ in particular Ward gets to shows off his dazzling picking skills.

It could hardly be said that Ward shows any arrogance, though. Not to say that arrogance is necessarily a bad thing, but Ward comes across as quite the opposite: very gracious and most of all sincerely grateful for all the appreciation that is shown by the crowd. It occurs to me that if I could pick a musician to host and show around in Manchester during a tour, Ward would perhaps be the one. I doubt that he’d eat all the food from the fridge or leave beer cans and socks all over the place.

As the band leaves the stage for the final time of the night, I’m left feeling lucky that I took that chance on the Merge compilation. Aside from the exciting music on those three CDs, it was its liner notes that also first introduced me to a sort of faux music encyclopaedia by a “Ronald Thomas Clontle”. The “RR&R” reference guide serves as “the ultimate argument settler when it comes to rating the true worth of an artist and their entire oeuvre” by means of a monosyllabic review consisting of one of three R-words: Rock, Rot, or surely in M. Ward’s case, Rule.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.