"Faith in God is happiness" read an inscription on the wall behind M. Ward at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue last night, words that would have provided a fitting backdrop to the transcendental songs on "Hold Time," his just-released album. But Ward didn't focus too much on his new work during an entertaining, but uneven, performance that often found the venue eclipsing the performers.
It was clear during a stirring opening set from Brooklyn trio Vivian Girls that the beautiful, high-ceilinged venue wasn't going to enhance stripped-down rock dynamics. That wasn't an issue during Ward's opening acoustic numbers, which included his cheeky rendition of David Bowie's "Let's Dance," a thrilling version of Rev. Robert Wilkins' "The Prodigal Son" and Ward's own new country-blues, "One Hundred Million Years."
When the band joined Ward for the Catholic-school boogie-shuffle of "Epistemology," the venue seemed to swallow their burrowing edge -- as well as the velvet scrape of their leader's voice -- and for the remainder of the 70-minute set, it was the languid Ward that translated best. That included the mournful "Undertaker," an aching "Change is Hard" (from the mostly bland She and Him project) and a piano-and-voice reading of Daniel Johnston's "Story of An Artist."
The over-resonating room swamped most of the uptempo material that followed, though "To Save Me" barreled through on sheer emotion. And while hearing new songs like "For Beginners" and "Shangri-La" would have been far better than murky, messy takes on "Poison Cup" and "Magic Trick," if there was anywhere a little atmosphere-to-audio inequity should be forgiven, it was Sixth and I.
The fans who showered Ward with a standing ovation surely seemed to indicate they were already treasuring the gig despite its shortcomings.
-- Patrick Foster (Feb. 2009)