(photos by Yafi Yair)

M. Ward, Portland’s great indie-rock troubadour, visited Fort Lauderdale for the first time ever last night, promising to play some “really old” songs to “make up for lost time.” While I doubt we received any more songs than others will in this tour—the show clocked in at a little over an hour, even with the encore—his Culture Room set was as vintage as promised. He offered tunes dating back to 2002 for a passionate audience that grew from a few dozen, during the underrated opening act Mount Moriah, to a solid, room-packing congregation at the start of Ward’s performance.

I hadn’t seen Ward perform since he played Orlando circa 2002, but what I remember from that show—an insanely talented guitarist whose motor movements along the strings and frets created a sound rich enough for three instruments—was in full force last night, whether the songs leaned toward surf-rock, punky barn-burners (like “Whole Lotta Losin,” a song recorded with his supergroup, Monsters of Folk) or lovely instrumental interludes (like his cover of a song by the influential guitarist John Fahey). He doesn’t just play guitar; he conquers it with the controlled fury of a prizefighter in the zone.

And for M. Ward, being in the zone often means performing with his eyes closed, which he did for many of his selections last night, resulting in what some might have felt is a sense of disconnection from his audience. Ward has said in the past that he doesn’t especially like touring, but that it’s part of the job; the fact that he doesn’t exude the chatty, crowd-playing gimmicks of a more comfortable road warrior is ultimately part of his appeal. There’s a sense that despite performing with a three-piece backing band in a hot, packed room interrupted by the sounds of occasional chatter and tinkling beer bottles—and, at one inopportune moment last night, a ghastly belch—that he’s the only one in the space, crafting personal, bedroom catharses on which we happen to be eavesdropping.

This intimate ambience reached its emotional apex during the encore, in which Ward played three solo acoustic songs on (I think) a pedal-steel guitar. The second, “Fuel For Fire,” included a harmonica, which hung near the singer’s mouth a la early Dylan. Ward’s fragile, elegiac performance strengthened the sense of this song as a lonesome cowboy ballad, composed to pass the time over a late-night campfire. He followed it with “Paul’s Song,” one of the great, witty songs about the rigors of the road, before sending us off with a full-band version of his great Buddy Holly cover, “Rave On.”

During this short set, Ward’s voice was at its clearest and most affecting; perhaps the Culture Room should have turned up his vocals for the rest of it, and turned down the guitar a smidge. Audio quibbles aside, this was a terrific show, and one that has been a long time coming; let’s hope it doesn’t take another decade to bring Ward back.

 

SET LIST

 

  1. Poison Cup
  2. Clean Slate
  3. Flaming Heart (I think – not sure about this one)
  4. Fool Says
  5. Vincent O’Brien
  6. Outta My Head
  7. Whole Lotta Losin’ (Monsters of Folk)
  8. Four Hours in Washington
  9. I Get Ideas

10. Me & My Shadow

11. Primitive Girl

12. Bean Vine Blues, No. 2 (John Fahey cover)

13. Chinese Translation

14. Rollercoaster

15. Never Had Nobody Like You

16. To Go Home (Daniel Johnston cover)

ENCORE

  1. One Hundred Million Years
  2. Fuel For Fire
  3. Paul’s Song
  4. Rave On