By Joseph Longo
M. Ward is teamplayer. By the time the folk legend introduced himself on stage, the concert was half over. Yet, everything that needed saying had already been addressed.
Performing at Thalia Hall in Chicago on June 17, Ward’s opening acts Nice As Fuck (NAF) and Big Thief did much of the talking.
The Jenny Lewis-fronted NAF played an intimate set on the main floor illuminated by a dimly lit peace sign marquee. But this impression of a start-up band quickly dissipated once Lewis began signing. Rolling around on the floor and signing in concert goers faces, Lewis embodied the charisma of the decades-long artist she is.
Along with Au Revoir Simone's Erika Forster, and the Like's Tennessee Thomas, the trio’s confidence felt political. (They originally formed for a Bernie Sander’s rally.) Clad in matching green army jackets and dark green berets, the women stripped down to reveal stark white “Nice as Fuck” shirts and black & white bandanas tied around their neck.
So, it felt natural when Lewis elevated the crowd by singing a snippet of their new song "Guns":
“I don’t wanna be afraid/ put your guns away. There are children dying every day/ put your guns away.”
As the supergroup air high-fived and walked away, their name “Nice as Fuck” took on a richer meaning. Watching NAF perform is neighborly conversation. For a crowd expecting M. Ward’s signature melancholy folk, they provided the necessary positivity and energy—but with a needed bite.
Big Thief followed followed thirty minutes later, but a notable disconnect accompanied their set. With a haunting, frail voice, lead singer Adrianne Lenker struggled to overpower Thalia Hall’s noisy bar. Unlike the friendly atmosphere and proximity of NAF, a literal barrier stood between this new band and the audience.
It wasn’t until nearly halfway through their set that Lenker fully caught the audience's attention. And to do so, she too went political.
“This is for the people in Orlando who were shot. And the people who couldn't give blood because of their sexuality and the whole LGBT community.”
A moment of silence followed, accompanied with a masterful guitar riff. The hall was unified for the first time during Big Thief’s set.
Quickly shifting into their next song, the harmony passed as the crowd’s murmurs gradually rose once again. The distraction severely overshadowed the set. But, Big Thief didn’t back down.
Before kicking off their final song, Lenker had one last comment for the audience.
"What's funny is some of you will walk out of here having heard the show. And some of you will walk out of here having not heard the show. The first gets more for their money, I guess.”
Big Thief excluded a different kind of energy. Their work spoke for itself. With intricate instrumental combinations and dense lyrics, appreciating their set required concentration. Some bands never master this balancing act. For others, it comes naturally, like M. Ward.
So when he finally took the stage, it felt like he had already performed. NAF embodied the charisma while Big Thief had the sound.
Little needs to be said about M. Ward’s set. He delivered in all ways the audience expected. Predictably spotlighting his new album More Rain, Ward still satisfied with classics like “Never Had Nobody Like You” and “Here Comes the Sun Again.”
More Rain is sleepy, relaxing folk with a subtle doo-wop underlay. Sounds like something better fit for outdoor music pavilion with sprawling green space. It’s not the loud grit for the small, dark Thalia Hall.
But it is his energy that bridges the gap — and he does so in the most unconventional of ways.
Ward took a risk with an instrumental opener. It paid off. Setting a relaxing, familiar tone the audience eased into his set.
Then came the endless switch ups. Whether it was bringing up Lewis for a duet, playing old favorites, or covering a Monsters of Folk song, Ward kept it interesting -- all while maintaining a relaxing familiarity.
It’s no surprise Ward has found immense success as part of the supergroup Monsters of Folk and as the male counterpart to Zooey Deschanel in She & Him. His live shows are equally focused on the opening acts and bandmates.
But, there’s an undeniable star power to Ward. He doesn’t need to promote himself; the spotlight always finds him. His masterful guitarist riffs rivals his signature vocals.
Afterall, that’s his best quality. He’s just as much singer-songwriter as he is producer-performer. Ward cannot be easily categorized. And it should stay this way. The man is at his best when he is uncontained.
Setlist via Faronheit
I’m A Fool to Want You & Michelle (The Beatles cover)
Radio Campaign (with Jenny Lewis)
Time Won’t Wait
Whole Lotta Losin’ (Monsters of Folk cover)
I Get Ideas (Julio Cesar Sanders cover)
Girl from Conejo Valley
Never Had Nobody Like You
Eyes on the Prize
Rave On! (Sonny West cover)
To Go Home (Daniel Johnston cover ft. Kelly Hogan)
Bean Vine Blues #2 (John Fahey cover)
Duet For Guitars #3
Fuel For Fire
Here Comes the Sun Again
A previous version of the article miscredited Nice As Fuck's song "Guns" to The Minus 5. The Minus 5 had covered the song in a live performance.