Matt Ward once attributed his fascination with John Fahey to the folk legend being part historian, part innovator. Similarly, Ward is a whiz at channelling the past: on his third album, last year's fine Transfiguration of Vincent, and its forthcoming follow-up, the better-still Transistor Radio, he's virtuoso enough to mine Americana's riches - from sweetly melancholic folk and husky blues to Tin Pan Alley-ish wonk'n'stomp - while being sufficiently immersed in the song for this not to seem like virtuosity for its own sake. It's quite a balance to sustain, but the 30-year-old Californian has it down pat.
This solo gig certainly proves Ward has the chops for it. He's a demonically good guitarist, pacing the stage as he bends his slight body into frighteningly fast bouts of finger-picking, slapping and harmonics on instrumentals that bustle like duets. As he samples himself and plays live over the result, he is a one-man duet. And his voice is wondrous: slouched over his mike, the bug-eyed singer ranges from a cherubic coo to a deep, downhome and dusky rasp, aching and longing like some old-timer from an earlier era.
Fittingly, then, he's designed Transistor Radio to play like an old radio show, when DJs could make heartfelt song choices with no regard for station playlists. Tonight's set seems to pick through history, too, Ward playing with feeling and excavating songwriting traditions as he goes. It's like a study in folk-blues basics via expertly juggled personas, with Ward's romantic lyrics shifting him from forlorn suitor ("I'll Be Your Bird"), to dismembered love casualty (his head rolls on "Outta My Head" and he's split apart on lovely "Carolina"), to craving a coffin on the wryly resigned "Undertaker".
Come the Waits-ian "Sad, Sad Song", it's no surprise he's singing, "Well, I went to the doctor..." He finds blues-style solace via song, with the gorgeous, "Wichita Lineman"-ish "Fuel for Fire" suggesting salvation in the idea of heartache being grist to a songwriter's mill ("The song is always the same/Got lonesome fuel for fire"). In the set-closer, the frisky rockabilly romp of "Helicopter", that idea sees Ward revitalised as a kind of mock action-movie lug. "I'm gonna save my baby," he rasps, "from the mess this world has made!"
Songs of romantic hope make up the encores, from the tipsy-goofy "Fool Says" ("I thought all the mystery was gone/You're here to tell me I was wrong") to the hushed "Dead Man" ("You shall be saved") and a heavenly cover of "What a Wonderful World". Ward prefaces the Louis Armstrong song with a careful comment about America's troubles, having recently played on the Stateside Vote for Change tour alongside REM and Springsteen; smartly, though, he never sings the track's title.
There's promise in sad, sad songs, but he knows not to overstate the case, bringing the same humility to it as he does to channelling - but never merely hijacking - sacred history. Like some doorway to that past, he played like a man possessed.