All words + photos: Marie Formica
On Sunday, Lee Ranaldo and his new band (“The Lee Ranaldo Band”) kicked the night off for M. Ward. A few songs in, a guy in the audience shouted, “What’s the band name?” Ranaldo did not hear, or maybe just did not want to answer. It’s a fair question for the younger kids. If you’ve ever talked to a teenager who asks you who Nirvana is when you mention them, this statement needs no further explanation. Or, if you were me, this question would remind you of a time when your then-eleven-year-old nephew said how much he liked Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” but not Kid Rock’s words, only the backing track.
Ranaldo who is often profiled as a quieter member of Sonic Youth said little to introduce the songs from the 2012 album “Between the Times & the Tides.” Right off the bat, I notice Ranaldo’s singing voice sounds similar to Michael Stipe of REM, that is to say it’s comforting: familiar, akin to a speaking voice, strong and clear and midrange. He seemed nervous, plunging into each song, mostly looking down at his guitar or talking quickly before playing, and then jamming. There was a lot of jamming. But don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed some jamming. I was especially impressed by the psychedelic breakdown at the end of “Angles,” which showcased Steve Shelley’s (still) sharp drumming.
Other solid tracks included, “Xtina as I Knew Her,” a disturbing, dreamy track and great live. There are punches of that signature winding guitar style and a haunting minor key riff repeats through the song, driving home sadness and tension. Ranaldo said he wrote this initially reminiscing about hanging out in high school but the song became about people who stay behind in the hometowns of America, a terrifying phenomenon some call “living” among the grocery stores and one floor postwar homes of their adolescence (the horror!).
Ranaldo’s guitar playing was the best part of their show. In particular, he spun a beautiful, tense guitar melody in “Hammer Blows.” The far-east style track visits the traveling theme that runs through this album with lyrics like: “Shine up your nails / Feel the wind in your sails.” And then halfway through Ranaldo scratches out a scary, loud line of “wah wah wahs,” which simultaneously sound like a police siren and distorted guitar. The Lee Ranaldo Band has flashbacks to Sonic Youth (not a bad thing). But, wandering guitar melodies pervade every song, making it impossible to achieve a tight, focused masterpiece. The free-flowing songs made the whole thing kind of mundane, without highlight. The songs themselves are compartmentalized, technically satisfying but not cohesive.
M. Ward proved true to his love for the old-time country motif before he walked onstage. Six tall, whitewashed windows (complete with antiqued paint chipping) hung above the stage. They looked out to nothing, panes filled with blackness. After the band and Ward walked on, the windows filled with a fiery sunset, clouds moving slowly across each window while the band started up. A nice effect visually, these windows demonstrate something larger about Ward’s music. He’s played endless covers of very old songs, many with an unreal optimism and cheeriness (“Sweetheart,” “Never Had Nobody Like You,” etc). The most impressive parts of his catalogue, to me anyway, are the tracks laid with bare-bones guitar plucking. It reminds me of so much of the classic blues and bluegrass that influences Ward. But overall, this music is from another time, so many decades ago. And when he plays something like “I Get Ideas,” for example, I wonder how many feel close to Ward, how well they relate to that saccharine devotion laced tight with restraint: “We’re dancing and you’re dangerously close to me, I get ideas.” Look here, I like M. Ward’s music, a lot. And I get his sort of disturbed, sort of backward glancing, sort of nostalgic music. But then I wonder how far under the surface I’m allowed to dip. Looking at the Country Living-esque window frames hanging above the band, I couldn’t help but think, “What should I get out of this?”
On many of the songs that night Ward’s voice felt very small and gentle. He’s got a subdued, quiet voice when he sings most songs, and the band compensated for that, playing softer and lower when he delivered one like this. He half talked his lyrics, which, paired with his expressions and various pointing, made an unusual effect. Singing “Rollercoaster” from his 2006 album, for example, “Rollercoaster we was the best of times / rollercoaster we was the worst of times too,” he raised his eyebrows and gestured toward the audience with exaggeration. It felt like he was reading a book out to an audience of giddy children. The crowd sang along with every song, with gusto, smiling and happy, which reinforced the image. It’s not simplistic music, however. On the cheerful and slightly tortured “Magic Trick,” Ward delivered his lyrics with the same bright smile, shaking his guitar and walking around: “She’s got one magic trick / just one and that’s it / she disappears.” It’s this duplicity, perhaps built into the songwriting, which confuses me about how I’m supposed to feel with Ward. Some songs he played like “Four Hours in Washington” were tense and played with the appropriate reverence, in this case, the guitar speeding up as the song progressed to a maniacal clip accompanied by snare. Then he’d switch to “I Get Ideas” and there I stood again, puzzled.
But let’s not discount the good time feel of the show. Dreamy guitar quality and excellent picking, as you’d expect from Ward, was threaded in the gentler tracks. On rockabilly numbers like “Rave On” and “Rollercoaster,” the whole band got into it, sometimes with a slide guitar that gave the concert a wild west feel. Ward even graced us with the poppy “Primitive Girl” from his new album, albeit somewhat reluctantly (less expression, more fast playing). And hell, he closed the show with a rocking cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” played quicker than its usual tempo. It was a great tribute and example of what Ward probably enjoys most about this style. It’s fun. His encore was another jolly slash sad classic Ward song, “Big Boat” (“Says he’s got a fast boat / it ain’t no faster than a goldfish.”). He banged out that bluesy piano and fist bumped a girl in the audience when leaving the stage. The crowd stood there, waiting for one more song—he’ll play one more won’t he? The band left their instruments and the stage lights stayed on, burning into them. Then the house lights went up. M. Ward, you got us again.
- Lee Ronaldo