El Rey Theatre, Friday, February 2
It was like spying on someone playing guitar in his bedroom: M. Ward paced the stage alone, plucking his instrument, wearing an oversize Army jacket and an old baseball cap — which was no match for his massive head of hair. Ward played four songs before even addressing the audience — only to announce that the next tune was a Roy Orbison rip-off. Mostly, Ward doted on his guitar as though it were his secretary and his wife was out of town. Eyes cast downward, he picked and strummed, singing his Dylanesque rail-rider ditties in a scratchy, old-timey voice. The room was rapt, as if people were trying, in their minds, to connect that grainy, melodic sound with the figure onstage: Vocally, Ward has a bluesy, old-soul weariness, but he looks like a baby-faced hippie. Soon enough, Ward introduced a ponytailed and sweetly dressed Zooey Deschanel, who cooed with the honeyed tones of a young Rosemary Clooney, almost stealing the show. (Her Almost Famous co-star Jason Lee was in the audience with Giovanni Ribisi, both wearing motorcylce jackets.) Ward and Deschanel sang a couple of tunes off Ward’s latest release, Post-War, before she disappeared.
A few moments caused the hushed crowd to laugh. At one point, Ward used some guitar-effects magic to loop his sound: He’d play a lick, stop, and a few seconds later, we’d hear the same bit again, as if echoed by some phantom guitar player offstage. It was like watching a movie where the voice track is off. Ward didn’t play much off his last album, Transistor Radio, despite repeated cries from the crowd for “I’ll Be Yr Bird.” Instead, he kept to older songs and a whole bunch of covers. Deschanel reappeared for the encore, rocking the house with Wanda Jackson’s “Fujiyama Mama.” The crowd hollered and clapped, and didn’t seem to mind being flies on the wall at El Rey — or even sharing Ward with a starlet. And Ward eventually gave in and satisfied the loud “Bird” request, proving he knew we were there.