M Ward at Koko, London

4.00

 

The gravelly Americana singer is best known for his She and Him collaboration with kooky girl du jour, Zooey Deschamel (star of New Girl), and assisting the likes of Neko Case, Norah Jones and Cat Power. However, M Ward’s delightful solo work has been, on the whole, criminally overlooked.

His sort-of breakthrough record Post-War, from 2006, contained two of the most exquisite laments – the elegiac “Poison Cup” and “Chinese Translation” – of the past 10 years and they’re highlights tonight at this understated but outstanding performance.

The undemonstrative singer, who looks like he belongs in a Noah Baumbach movie (The Squid and the Whale), or in a lecture room discussing non-linear aspects of magnetohydrodynamic stability theory, enters with a bow, clenching his hands as if in prayer and keeps conversation throughout to an absolute minimum – restricting himself to “thanks a lot” and “this show’s coming to an end”. But he doesn’t really need to talk. He kicks off with “Post-War” and “Paul’s Song”, both of which sound like tracks written in the early hours on a greyhound bus to nowheresville, Nebraska.

When Ward supported Neko Case at the same venue six years ago he was drowned out by a persistent babble. Not tonight. There’s no chit-chat, just a reverential hush for plaintive tracks such as “Clean Slate” (off the latest album, his seventh, A Wasteland Companion), a poignant tribute to Big Star’s Alex Chilton who died in 2010, and the divine “Chinese Translation” (“What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart/ And how can a man like me remain in the light?”).

The 38-year-old Oregonian is a whizz at the uncomplicated, stripped-down country-tinged three-minute pop song and the breezy “Primitive Girl” off the new record is a perfect example. However, here he gives his 1950s rock’n’roll leanings away with blistering covers of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”. His other covers are a breezy take on Louis Armstrong’s “I Got Ideas” and a bouncy, rendition of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home”. However it’s his own quieter, more introspective songs that hit home most, particularly “Vincent O’Brien” and “Sad, Sad Song”, with the mournful “The hardest thing in the world to do/  Is to find somebody believes in you”.

Clocking in at 90 minutes, this was a lean, longueur-free, wholly enjoyable concert and his winsome Hollywood collaborator wasn’t missed at all. Maybe she’s holding him back?

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