It’s a Thursday night in downtown LA. The ultra-cool and artful masses hustle from sketchy corner parking lots towards the bright glow of The Orpheum Theatre. Tonight, M. Ward is making good on his promise to return, after a cancellation in the fall. The excitement is palpable – and heavily Tweeted – as his second support act takes the stage.
Witnessing Karen Elson – Jack White’s painfully gorgeous ex-wife – in person is a little like encountering the inside of the Duomo in Florence, Italy for the first time. You’re looking up so high, you fear your neck might break – but the vision towering above you is so beautiful, you squint and stretch your face as far as your spine allows. Oh, she’s playing music, too? How nice.
Ms. Elson and her band wring a phenomenal variety of sounds out of their simple four-piece setup. The harmonies are spooky and sexy; the accordion, tremendous. Several songs deep in the set, after the upbeat but morose “Cruel Summer,” and the romantically creepy “Thief at My Door,” Elson asks us “You guys like murder ballads?” She barely pauses. “Good.” We’re treated to another elegant creepfest, and she closes on her Donovan cover from the True Blood soundtrack, “Season of the Witch” – which, it must be noted, sounds even better in person.
M. Ward’s band trickles on in bits and pieces, taking their place in front of the austere and absolutely rad “window” set. Throughout the show, these suspended panes travel over ever-changing skies and landscapes, a fascinating, and very tasteful visual accompaniment. Ward opens with “Poison Cup,” growling and murmuring into the mic: “One or two won’t do…cause I want it all.” The audience howls in agreement. From his low-key entrance to his last goodbye, this crowd is downright frisky – hootin’ and hollerin’ for the man like cougars for a Chippendale. Which isn’t to say these listeners aren’t cool as hell: together, this crowd is one big boot-buying, coffee-drinking part-time blogger; an Instagrammed collective unconscious with bangs (that donates ten bucks a month to KCRW).
Ward’s band is an All-Star cast of grown-ass folk MEN: Chris Scruggs, Nate Walcott, Mike Coykendall, Scott McPherson. The songs, at a certain point, start to blend together, and the experience becomes like a peaceful, coastal drive up the 101. Nothing showy, just mellow tunes made well. Like denim chambray, or a pie – this is music that’ll make you pleased as punch to be a hipster American. Things pick up during “Me and My Shadow,” and groove out during “Sad, Sad Song,” when Ward turns this theatre full of Angelenos into a private campfire gathering, telling us how to get by when heartbreak gets the best of us.
Before the show is through, we’ve seen couples swing dance in the aisles, heard a whistle solo and shimmied to a few Daniel Johnston covers. Ward apologizes for his previous absence: “Sorry, I couldn’t be here in October: see the thing was, I was sick as a brick,” he says, recounting something nasty he acquired in Mexico. Ms. Zooey Deschanel – the She to Ward’s Him – arrives shortly thereafter to sing along to “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” and several other tunes. They close out the night on The Riviera’s version of “California Sun” – the perfect cherry on top of this alluring West Coast vacation of a show.