Tonight’s tickets state in black block writing ‘M Ward, sponsored by Frankie Magazine’, and boy does it look like it. So many nice frocks, tight jeans, softly pointed boots and perfectly tousled hairdos are squeezed into the Palais this evening that it’s remarkable 1000 Pound Bend bothered staying open. With all the unfussiness befitting his plain-speaking songwriting style, Ward walks out, waves, straps on his Gibson Hummingbird and launches into a dynamic bluesy instrumental. With the crowd already attentive to every plucked string and pealing harmonic when he introduces his gruff tenor with Paul’s Song, we’re transfixed. Which is a hard thing to be by one man and a guitar, no bells or whistles, just minimal use of harmonica, a little delay pedal and some simple piano. There is no overwhelming talent or blazing charisma with Ward, and it would be distracting if there were. His voice is expressive, his songs decent and his guitar playing excellent; a collection of talents that could be found in a dozen musicians in any given city, yet somehow, with Ward, one and one and one is four.
A wave of applause rolls around the theatre with the opening notes of Chinese Translation, a hush descends for the Dylan-meets-Khalil Gibran poetic solemnity of Requiem and cheering breaks out for a neat expropriation of Don Gibson’s Oh Lonesome Me.
Just before entering into a gorgeously caustic version of Hold Time, Ward ruefully mentions that he’s promoting an album he released two years ago, ‘late, I know, but I love coming here.’ Whether he likes being on stage is another issue. He rarely smiles and dispatches songs almost begrudgingly, echoing a recent interview in which he mentioned his disdain for performing. The songs however, don’t suffer at all. Ward’s piano-led take on Daniel Johnston’s The Story of An Artist is perfectly pitched, equally funny and tragic without the solemn reverence it would be so easy to give it. A brief dip into the Monsters of Folk’s Slow Down Jo and The Sandman, The Brakeman and Me are warmly received and Sad Sad Song leaves the crowd cheering louder than ever, despite few audience members seeming to own it. His closing Undertaker dies with a distorting, shorting battery in a guitar pedal, which he weathers to great effect. Plucking Alex, a pianist, from the audience for the encore Rollercoaster proves a smart move as he provides the perfect accompanist, putting Ward in the straight-man position he seems clearly more comfortable in.