VIENNA, Va., May 20, 2012 —The backdrop for M. Ward’s show at the 9:30 Club last Sunday night was house windows. Throughout the show, what appeared behind those windows changed into different settings, ranging anywhere from a Midwestern sunset to a nighttime view from a city apartment. There are plenty of metaphors that go along with windows, and many of them prove apt for a performer such as M. Ward.
Stage production is often an overlooked value when it comes to a live show. Often, bands will simply put up a banner behind their set-up or switch on a random light show, and then go on playing their set. When someone is watching essentially the same static image throughout the show, performers’ movements aside, the slightest change in the background, even if they’re not necessarily focusing on it, can have an effect on perception. When that change is deliberate and calculated, the effect can be even bigger.
For an introspective singer/songwriter like M. Ward, any kind of difference that forces the audience to come along for the ride with him is an added bonus. Each time the background shifted during Sunday’s performance, it added a different layer of meaning to the song, giving everything a slightly Midwestern feel throughout the night.
M. Ward isn’t necessarily performer who boasts a huge sound. Nothing about his songs is big—neither his ideas nor his sound. Everything about him and his music points inward and is geared toward extracting some of the tiniest details of a given emotion or insights about Ward himself. What makes him effective though, and the reason why those changing backdrops are important, is these innermost feelings take on a greater level of importance as they become more up close and personal.
For instance, the scope of a sunset taken on a macro level might convey a sense of grandiosity. But that in and of itself doesn’t have much of an effect unless the viewer generates his own inward response to the image. At his best, this is the kind of effect M. Ward can have on a listener.
Most singer/songwriters of a similar ilk try to really play up the melodrama of a song and attempt to make a grand statement out of it. Ward takes the opposite approach, exploring the idea that such moments are often small, focused, and deeply personal. It’s this kind of duality that his entire set reinforced.
The introspective tone of his set was also helped greatly by Ward’s musical tone. While it doesn’t stare out prominently on his recorded material, Ward’s live set feels a lot more like an alt-country performance than anything else. Alt-country was a response to modern country, selectively incorporating pop and modern while at the same time recovering the original, gritty roots of country music.
Normally, Ward’s brand of sound focuses on folk influences, with outside flourishes gradually finding their way in. Sunday’s set, however, very much possessed the grit and twang of a country singer with a subtle leaning towards modernity. It’s this sort of style that brings out the low-key emotion of Ward’s songs without allowing anything to go over the top. It’s the kind of style that helps keep Ward’s sound grounded.
M. Ward has always had an old timey feel to his music. If Sunday’s set is any example, his live show just embraces those urges even more. When artists feel compelled to overload their audiences’ senses with showy stage effects, constantly bludgeoning them with a bewildering array of visual and physical change, Ward instead leans towards the kind of subtle musical and visual shifts that allow the emotions of his audience move at their own measured pace.