From M. Ward, a timeless feel
Wednesday night at the Somerville Theatre, M. Ward received one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a musician in our chatty modern era: an attentive audience.
There was the occasional murmur or whisper, and plenty of between-song hooting, but while the troubadour was playing, his sold-out crowd was listening. That attention was rewarded with a dynamic 75-minute performance that evoked warmth one minute and shivers the next.
Ward began the night alone, standing in front of a projection of a window that looked out onto a gray sky. He gently strummed his guitar and blew a low harmonica for "Hold Time," the rueful title track of his new album. It was an elegant mood-setter, with Ward singing in his antique rasp about miscommunication and memory and hearing "the endless summer in your laugh."
With just one song, he demonstrated his gift for economical storytelling. His intensely personal tales resonate on a grand scale, regardless of the way the winds blow in the outside world, because they're grounded in timeless images of the spaces between places and people.
The album was released just one day before the show, the first of the tour, but that didn't stop Ward from showcasing its charms. With the assistance of his versatile four-piece band - including one very gifted whistler - Ward flowed from the gritty big beat of "Epistemology" to the mix of guitar fuzz and pristine pop harmonies of "To Save Me." You either wanted to curl up inside his dusty romantic vignettes or stomp your feet in time to them.
His version of the country classic "Oh Lonesome Me" was breathtaking; even without his album duet partner Lucinda Williams, he got at the very marrow of that song's exquisite heartbreak.
The singer-songwriter also dipped into his acclaimed back catalog to good effect. The warped, Marc Ribot-esque guitars of "Vincent O'Brien" and the gentle, soul-tinged "Post-War" were standouts. As was Ward's guitar work, consistently compelling whether he was playing back-porch chicken scratching, intricately finger-picked solos, or meat-and-potatoes riffs.
He also proved he could get by without actress-singer Zooey Deschanel, with whom he partnered last year for the splendid She & Him project. His fleshed-out take on their winsome "Change Is Hard" added a nice coat of vocal rust to the mournful but melodic ballad.
The vocalists from opening act Oakley Hall offered a rich harmony assist during the encore, which included the rollicking "Magic Trick," the scratchy new guitar rocker "Never Had Nobody Like You," and the oft-covered classic "Rave On."
From a crumbling economy standpoint, 75 minutes definitely felt a little on the slight side, especially given the wealth of Ward's back catalog. But the quality-to-run-time ratio was admirably high - and that's always worth paying attention to.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.