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October 31, 2006
M. Ward initially took the Rialto stage without his band on September 25, opening the show with a solo rendition of "Portland Rain" from his 2005 release Transistor Radio. Yet despite his reminder to the crowd that his heart was in the Northwest, M. Ward was about to show the special love he has for Tucson, Arizona - or at least that he has a bunch of friends in town.

Ward's latest album, Post-War, introduced a bigger sound for the smoky-voiced troubadour, and if there was any doubt as to whether he would attempt to replicate this sound live, the stage set-up revealed his bold intentions. Ward came to Tucson with more than your average folkie's arsenal of rockingness: a full band including two drummers, a slew of extra guitars, a bunch of extra microphones, and conspicuously unmanned keyboards. The two drummers filled out the heavy, joyous sounds of songs like "Magic Trick" and "Big Boat," and Rachel Blumberg (formerly of the Decemberists) showcased her versatility, contributing with guitar, vocals, and xylophone on quieter numbers. On record and in person, M. Ward seems to pull off old-fashioned tricks (the ballad about loneliness, the country duet, songs about riding in "aeroplanes" and listening to 45's), with a sense of modernity, off-kilter irony, and sound pop sensibilities. His songs reflect simpler times, and his lyrics-encompassing both the quiet tragedy of death and the raucous joys of love-are well suited to his slightly hoarse, wizened voice. M. Ward does not sound like a man in his twenties.

But with all of that sensitive brooding and old-time vocal charm, we often forget that Ward can really play the guitar. That Monday night, however, the curly-haired songwriter left no hanging questions as to his musical showmanship or ability to emote with the six-string. The second half of his set built in a gradual crescendo revealing the first two guest artists of the night: Tommy Larkins (Jonathan Richman's longtime drummer, formerly of Giant Sand) who brought his snare out to sit in with the band and Nick Luca (a frequent collaborator who has done production work for Ward at Tucson's Wavelab Studios) who joined Ward for a bit of dueling guitars on the rousing "Helicopter."

Minutes later Ward's second microphone was occupied by none other than Neko Case who appeared on stage to cheers and howls from the crowd. Case joined her friend singing a cover of Daniel Johnston's "To Go Home." Perhaps the highpoint of the show, Case and Ward pulled off a true duet (a rarity in country or rock these days) that was sweet, rousing, and only slightly campy.

Perhaps the most predictable guest musician of the night, Howe Gelb (who released Ward's first album, Duet For Guitars #2, on his Ow Om label and appears extensively on Ward's latest record) was the last to emerge, appearing when the band returned to the stage for a three song encore. The aforementioned lonely keyboard was finally put to use, as Gelb lent his trademark ragged piano styles to "Poor Boy," "Sad, Sad, Song," and "Vincent O'Brien": three samples of the older, sadder Ward, that made for a gentle come-down before we stepped out into the warm Arizona night.

In his opening song, Ward asserted that when contrasted with his Portland home "every town is all the same." Nonsense. We think you're special darling, and we know you feel the same way about us.

SEE ALSO: www.mwardmusic.com

--
Daisy DeCoster
A native of New Jersey and a recent export from Portland, Oregon, Daisy DeCoster is a huge M. Ward fan and a library sciences graduate student at the University of Arizona.

See other articles by Daisy DeCoster.

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