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M. Ward: Crossing Generations

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: July 16, 2003

M. Ward
w/ Rilo Kiley, The Golden Age
Saturday, July 19
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha

It would be perfectly understandable if you mistakenly thought singer/songwriter M. Ward was from Nebraska.

He's actually from California, but glance at the indie folkster's recent tour history and you might think he went to Westside. He spent a good deal of last year on the road with Saddle Creek Records band Bright Eyes. He's touring with Head of Femur, a Chicago band whose frontman, Matt Focht, is from Lincoln. And Ward's backing band is an outfit called The Band of Four, which is actually Saddle Creek artist Rilo Kiley (who also is performing separately on the tour).

How does a guy with West Coast ties get aligned with all this Saddle Creek talent?

"It's kind of strange," Ward says, calling from his father's home in Thousand Oakes, California, where he's staying while rehearsing with Rilo Kiley. "I could blame it on the fact that we all share the same agent -- it's like we all clock into the same office. I can't complain because the musical community in Omaha is an amazing breeding ground of talent. I feel pretty fortunate to be able to play with these musicians. Omaha has some of the most creative energy in the world right now."

Ward said he met Rilo Kiley through Bright Eyes and saw them play a few times in Portland. "I really loved their sound," he said. "They had been listening to my records and we were sort of mutual fans. We rehearsed a few times and it went well."




Rilo Kiley should provide added fireworks to a style that is typically intimate and subdued. Known primarily as an acoustic singer/songwriter, M. Ward's expertise lies in making simple, heartfelt ditties that swarm with layers of nostalgic detail. Transfiguration of Vincent, the recently released follow-up to his breakthrough debut, End of Amnesia, opens with a twangy, piano-inflected instrumental that would sound right at home in an Old West dancehall or played beside a dwindling campfire surrounded by half-sleeping cowpokes. Throughout its 11 tracks, Ward sings stories in a warm, gravelly voice reminiscent of Robbie Robertson, backed by folky arrangements that blend old country and bluegrass with other American roots music, a style that he picked up from his father.

"My dad turned me onto Johnny Cash. He was always into gospel and country," Ward said. "My mom listened to classical music. But I guess the most important musical education was just teaching myself how to play guitar at around age 15, when music started to become more personal and beyond being just a listening experience."

Ward said he quickly discovered guitarists such as John Fahey, Chet Atkins and Django Reinhardt. "They opened up these different avenues that I knew I could never reach, but could at least try to walk down," he said.

His respect for a bygone era goes beyond music. He says his lyrics are inspired by older works of fiction and poetry. "Some modern fiction really annoys me," he said. "It's too rapped up in the singular image or it's too post-post-modern. It's hard for me to get involved in it."

The same holds true for some of today's music. "Radiohead comes to mind," he said. "For my personal tastes, I love the lyrics and sentiments of Louis Armstrong. I guess my head is still stuck in the past. These days, Banarama is considered 'old music.' That's sort of a strange phenomenon.

"I think about what the next generation is growing up with. I'm not trying to change what they listen to; I'm just playing what comes naturally. For myself, it tends to come from those eras when music and genres were melding in an incredible way, which resulted in the birth of jazz, the birth of rock and the birth of folk. Those are the richest eras for me musically, and they end up finding their way into my music. The things you consume always end up coming out of you."

Ward got a chance to pass on his appreciation to a whole new generation of listeners touring with Bright Eyes earlier this year.

"I loved that tour," Ward said. "It was a unique experience because the age group was a bit younger than what I'm accustomed to.

"But no matter how old the audience is, I feel isolated on stage. I'm more concerned with the instrument and other people I play with, and creating something that at least is memorable for the musicians and oftentimes becomes memorable for the audience, too -- that's an added bonus."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader July 16, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


"These days, Banarama is considered 'old music.' That's sort of a strange phenomenon."