Sunday, August 14, 2005

M Ward story - Newport Mercury 8/3/05 - full text

Whether between sets or genres - no breaks

Newport Folk Festival advance
SUN., AUG. 7, Dunkin' Donuts Stage: M. Ward


With big-name headliners like Elvis Costello and rising indie-rock stars like Bright Eyes, it is doubtful that this year's Newport Folk Festival will end up reminding you of your parents' old Peter, Paul & Mary records. This is an eclectic mix, to say the least.

And if there is one artist on the lineup who mirrors this eclectic approach in his own music, it's M. Ward.

Matt Ward, a 31-year-old southern California native, is often assigned the "alt-country" tag, but he's also known to have covered everyone from David Bowie to Johann Sebastian Bach. His fourth and latest release, "Transistor Radio," on the Merge Records label, is a slow-burning ride that melds country, blues, classical guitar and folk rock without making it sound like a random hodgepodge. At the center of it all is the smoky croon of Ward, who trades off between piano and acoustic guitar while flourishes of fuzz-drenched feedback, woozy lap steel or echoing drums sneak in to add occasional texture.

Reached recently by phone at his home in Portland, Ore., Ward said he doesn't see his music fitting into a single, airtight genre.

"It's hard for me to describe the music because I have no perspective on it, because it's so much part of my life," Ward said. "That's why normally I would leave it to other people to describe, but when I am forced to say something, I just have to say that it's guitar and piano music. That's all I can really say, because part of the fun for me is messing with genres and blurring the lines. That's what makes music interesting for me is experimenting with these different styles. It would be a very boring road to have just one genre for me and just stick to it."

In July, Ward returned from a three-date festival jaunt in Italy and France. He had one gig booked for a far smaller crowd - the 250-capacity Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J. - before his appearance at the Newport Folk Fest, but he said he didn't see much of a difference between playing for thousands in a festival setting and playing for a relative handful at a club.

"They're actually really similar for me, because I'm focusing more on the music rather than on all of the other stimuli that are out there for any given show," Ward said. "The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to focus on the songs and to focus on the other people that are up on stage with you. To focus on the music is always the best thing."

Ward started making a name for himself about five years ago after he left the band Rodriguez. Ward's music caught the ear of Howe Gelb, mastermind of underground legends Giant Sand, who put out Ward's debut, "Duet For Guitars #2," on his Ow Om record label. Since then, Ward has put out three more records and played for audiences large and small across Europe and the United States. In addition to the boon that Gelb gave him, Ward has increased in popularity as a tour supporter and live band member of Bright Eyes.

Between Ward, Jim James and Bright Eyes, don't expect to see many different faces on stage - in fact, the three sets are essentially going to be a case of musical chairs where they all end up playing in each other's bands.

"It's gonna be this new sort of group that Conor Oberst and Jim James and I have created," Ward said. "We've done a couple of tours where we collaborate on each other's songs and it's just a collaborative effort all around, so that's gonna be my band. It'll all be mixed up. All three of our sets will be mixed up together. No breaks."


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