M. Ward + Holly Throsby

[23 January 2007]

By Nick Gunn

I went to this show reluctantly, a victim of my own misplaced enthusiasm. I conjured a thousand reasons as to why I shouldn’t go: I couldn’t afford it; I didn’t know much of M. Ward’s music; I didn’t much like what I did know. Maybe I initially expressed interest in going so I wouldn’t look like an ignorant dickhead? In any case, I went.

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Holly Throsby is so damn nice, it’s almost offensive. She trills her way through ditties about frolicking along the South Coast of New South Wales, her voice never cracking or even slightly missing a note. Her poise, her clothes, her jaunty strumming: all paint the picture of an awfully nice girl, the kind that might cross-stitch “Jesus Saves,” decorate it with little floral designs, and give it to her grandmother for Mother’s Day. Maybe the pendulum swung back while I wasn’t looking, and “nice” is the new “punk.” Whatever the reality, there’s a combative kindness at work here, one that’s far more confrontational than her super-sweet exterior.

M Ward is another story entirely. I arrived, somewhat fearfully, expecting an onslaught of mournful, dirge-like tunes. I figured we’d get an overrated singer-songwriter, one oozing false sentiment and wielding tawdry, broken-hearted melodies. I anticipated those “serious” girls who come to shows like this to clamber to the foot of the stage and stare meaningfully into a singer’s eyes. Heck, they might even shed a few tears.

What I got was an all-rocking, all-rolling bonanza. As you might imagine from my precursory rant, this was something of a shock. Ward normally plays stripped-down, rootsy Americana at a slow-plonking pace, so the sheer weight of the full band playing behind him set my mouth agape for three or four minutes. Obviously I wasn’t the only one surprised: later, in the local press, people wrote letters to the editor bemoaning how awful the whole affair had been.

Awful?!? For me, it was a godsend! Ward and his band brought life to a body of work that had previously left me stone cold. Ward’s guitar wailed like it was the great-granddaughter of Chuck Berry’s, and the rest of the band shook it out with equal enthusiasm. Even “Chinese Translation,” which I usually loathe when it comes on late-night music clip programs, was invigorated, brimming with an energy far greater than I ever imagined it could possess.

I found myself moving, maybe even “getting down” a little—not something I would have expected from an M Ward show. It didn’t help that my previous exposure to the guy had been primarily through his mournful cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” In any case, Ward proved there’s far more to his music than sub-standard covers of songs that were sub-standard to begin with.

So I guess these are the words of a man who enjoyed himself despite himself. As I mentioned, the feeling was not universal. It’s an issue at any gig, but groups of people talking (shouting?) amongst themselves were particularly prevalent. You know it’s gotten bad when people are trying to silence their peers out of sheer embarrassment. Of course, Ward was in town as part of the broader Sydney Festival, so perhaps some of those who attended came to be seen themselves, rather than to see (or hear) someone else. Me? I don’t know why I went. Maybe it was to learn more about a man who’d bored the shit out of me only a few short hours before. And to learn how to like him.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/m-ward-holly-throsby/