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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Initial in `M. Ward' might as well stand for `magical'

February 05, 2007|Eric Ducker | Special to The Times

The "shush"-ing started before the music did. The lights had gone down and the curtains were still closed, but members of the audience with librarian tendencies were scared that the rest of the crowd at the El Rey on Friday night wouldn't be suitably respectful to their M. Ward. Then the sounds of an acoustic guitar came over the PA and the curtains opened, and there was Ward with his head pointed to the ground, already playing. But the people did not stay silent. As Ward (the M stands for Matt) played a five-minute instrumental introduction on guitar, they whooped appreciatively for his finger-picking prowess.

The Portland, Ore.-based songwriter stood at the microphone for the opening "Chinese Translation" and then the cover of Neil Young's "Oh, Lonesome Me" with the stance of a boxer. As he made his way through "O'Brien/O'Brien's Nocturne" from 2002's "End of Amnesia," he began to charm, and as he prepared for "Eyes on the Prize" from "Post-War," his most recent album, he addressed the audience directly, the brim of his baseball cap pulled low over is face. "How's it going? Nice to see you." Once Ward sat down at the piano to raggedly croon "Carolina," the seduction was complete. Couples started massaging each other's necks.

Deep into his set, Ward uttered a phrase probably never heard from an artist on a respected indie label before: "I'd like to introduce one of my favorite singers, Zooey Deschanel." The actress joined Ward on his "Magic Trick" and other songs, finally belting Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You."

She returned for the encore, but Ward ended the night alone, with his "Sad, Sad Song." It's a desperate, beautiful number, and it left the crowd the way they came -- devoted and adoring.

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