Live Review – M Ward at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire

There’s something odd about M Ward. Whilst I’ve listened to three of his albums – Transfiguration of Vincent, Transistor Radio and Post-War – more than pretty much anything else over the past four or five years, I still haven’t really got a grasp of the man behind croaky voice, obscure lyrical themes, and that guitar playing. Would finally seeing him live crack open that mystery?


First things first. Gig-goers in London – please take note. That nice, if somewhat kooky, lady up on the stage is trying to perform. Please don’t talk loudly all the way through her performance. It’s not nice. Bless Lavender Diamond though, she did try and get everyone singing, and nearly succeeded.

Lavender Diamond and her Flowery Guitar Tuner

Lavender Diamond and her Flowery Guitar Tuner

It was a fantastic gig. M is a compelling performer, the band around him were excellent, and you can’t help but be astonished at what this man can do on a guitar. Opening with “Chinese Translation”, we were treated to the marvellous warm sound of his fingerstyle playing, bursting into a three-or-so minute solo. Some stomping tunes from the disappointing “Hold Time” followed, which sound a little better live than they do on the album, before he settled into playing some of his rather enviously huge back catalogue.

Really, a man this untouched by mainstream success shouldn’t have such a fantastic set of songs. “Poison Cup” was simply astonishing; coming after his acoustic set (which I shall return to, don’t you worry), the song burst to life, almost exploding from the tension. “To Save Me”, one of the few highlights of “Hold Time”, had M hunched over the piano looking like an even more deranged Jerry Lee Lewis. “Post War”, the first moment of calm in the set, was gorgeous, and showed M’s unexpected vocal range.

And then there’s the acoustic part. “Fuel for Fire” featured that rarest of things – a good harmonica solo. The medley which featured “Duet for Guitars #3” was absolutely jaw-dropping. This YouTube video gives some indication of what he can do:

Frankly, when you see it live, you just can’t believe your eyes. What this man can do with an acoustic guitar is beyond belief. I don’t think I’ve been that amazed by one man’s guitar playing since seeing Durutti Column years ago. I urge you to go to the man’s show, just to see what he can do. Jaw-dropping dexterity. And a lovely guitar too. I quite fancy one of them. It’s a Gibson Johnny A Signature. No, me neither.

One Of These In Black Please, Dear Santa Claus

One Of These In Black Please, Dear Santa Claus

On a side note, what the hell is going on at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire? Two guys behind us were dragged out of the crowd for taking photos, and the roadie point blank refused to give me and another chap the set list. Very odd.

Sorry, going off-topic a bit there.

But all through the night I was thinking “There’s something odd about him”. The first clue to his odd behaviour came during a re-wording of “Magic Trick”, by singing “I’ve got one magic trick……I disappear”.

M Ward Himself

M Ward Himself

Then the night’s finisher “To Go Home”, a song not even his own, which provides the biggest clue. It’s that line “I’ll be true to you\Oh yeah, you know I will\I’ll be true to you forever or until\I go home”. That’s it with M. You know he’s only there to play his songs, and he plays them fantastically, with energy and dexterity, but there’s also a look in his eyes that tells us he doesn’t need us. When he goes home, he’s got his music, his 45’s to play at night.

You can see it in the strange gleam in his eye as he plays the piano, lost inside his own world filled with the rapture of the sound he can make. You can see it in the half-smile as he turns sideways, away from the audience. You can see it in the way he hardly acknowledges his band. It’s not that he’s unhappy up there, far from it, but you sense he’d be just as happy playing to an empty theatre.

What’s odder is that he’s probably the most prolific collaborator around at the moment, what with Jim James and Zooey Deschanel and Jenny Lewis and whoever else passes his way. What an odd fellow. But also a great talent, and someone definitely not to be missed.

“God, it’s great to be alive\Takes the skin right off my hide\To think I’ll have to give it all up someday”. Those words have been coming back to me for the past two days, as sung by a man close to genius, who we need more than he needs us.

MP3: To Go Home by M Ward

MP3: To Save Me by M Ward

Postscript: Our friend D, who had previously taken us to see the Stereophonics, came along as we had a spare. Having never heard of M Ward before, she loved it (who wouldn’t?) and asked what albums she should get. I said, “Transfiguration of Vincent, Transistor Radio and Post-War”. Sadly Post-War doesn’t seem to be on Amazon at the moment, so here are the rest:

Buy “Transfiguration of Vincent” (CD)

Buy “Transistor Radio” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Hold Time” (CD/MP3)

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  1. Where Have You Been All My Life? « Loft And Lost

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