And the hat came off

It was nice to see Matt Ward sell out the Aladdin Theater for many reasons. First off, he deserves it more than anyone I can think of, locally or otherwise, and has worked hard to get where he is. He tours constantly, has many fans, and friends in everyone from Cat Power and Bright Eyes to My Morning Jacket and Howe Gelb. Rumor has it that the French loved him long before half his hometown even listened to him, but thankfully it seems people are finally catching on. His albums are consistently unique, full of sentiment and nostalgically catchy. In person he’s humble and friendly, seemingly unaware of the international attention he’s attracting. Mostly, I was just pleased to be sitting so close to the stage and with such attractive company.

The show was opened by local band Norfolk and Western and by Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan. This was my first time seeing Norfolk and Western play live and I was impressed with many of their finer points. Their set seemed to be divided in two with loud, rockin’ material on one side and pretty, quiet songs on the other. I really liked the quieter melodies and found myself wishing for more of them. Although the violist, Amanda Lawrence, was just a guest and not a permanent member, she added much to their sound and I’d vote to have her bumped up to full time. The drummer, Rachel Blumberg, kept excellent rhythm and proved to be quite versatile with her glockenspiel, piano and backing vocal skills – also I liked the flower in her hair. Their most interesting moment was when Blumberg sang and played piano while being backed by Adam Selzer, who sang through an old gramophone bell while shaking sleigh bells. Although this song was not my favorite tune, it was definitely their most atypical.

David Bazan will always have a place, if not in my heart then at least in my record collection, because of a certain Pedro the Lion album – It’s Hard To Find A Friend. True, it was released seven years ago and is the only album of theirs I own, still, I love it and reach for it regularly on rainy days. That night Bazan stood alone on the stage tuning his guitar and looking a little nervous. He introduced himself in a hushed, shy voice, which became strong and beautiful as the first song progressed. It was natural, almost effortless and much better than I remembered. His set consisted not of Pedro songs, but of a new project called Headphones, which should be released soon.

Although Bazan’s Christian beliefs sometimes showed through in his lyrics, they weren’t as apparent as he spoke to the audience in between songs about touring and alcoholism. He was actually really funny and accepted a drink from a fan. I was a little confused by the PowerBook at his feet though. Was it really just for the set list? That seems a little excessive to me.

The talented musicians of Norfolk and Western played as M. Ward’s backing band, which is usually what the openers of his shows do. As a result, each performance is different and influenced by whomever he happens to be playing or touring with. As usual, he was wearing a baseball hat pulled tightly over his curly hair, hiding most all of his face and furthering the shy, modest image he’s been cultivating.

Instruments changed hands a few times and some were added when friends joined in on piano and vibraphone. For the song, “One Life Away,” only he and Rachel remained on stage as she accompanied him with what appeared to be a baritone ukulele. It all ended a little too soon, but thankfully everyone came back after a brief period of thundering applause and rocked a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover. I f-ing love Creedence! M. Ward, in a rare moment, even took his hat off so he could fully get into the Fogerty song structure.

He didn’t play “Hi-Fi,” and in fact only played off of the Transfiguration and Transistor Radio album, but I still had a great night and I don’t think I’ve heard Matt sound better. The only thing left to do after such a good show was to get some 24-hour Hot Cake House action, which was just what we did. Damn they have good syrup!