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For many, Matt Ward is best known as one half of She & Him, the indie-folk duo Zooey Deschanel (the Ward’s other half in the band) foisted into the limelight last March. But to those who know better, M. Ward is the Fahey-following, finger-plucking guitar hero whose jaw-dropping performance Saturday night silenced the sold-out crowd at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
Brooklyn-based trio Vivian Girls opened the show, throwing most of the crowd for a loop—the love-child-band of the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Shangri-Las is an interesting tour mate for a vintage Americana act. But after charming the crowd with awkward between-song banter (would “Obummer” or “Obomber” make a better New York Post headline?) people of the pews loosened up and went along for the shoegaze/surf punk ride.
But when Ward took center stage, acoustic guitar in hand, harmonica in mouth, the crowd tightened up, listened up and sat rapt as he played a few songs before addressing them, thanking them for being there. When he did, they exploded until Ward’s restless digits returned to their strings and frets, wasting little time on monologue and polite conversation.
Instead, Ward looked at his fans, scanned the synagogue, and made all eyes who stared back feel his haunting cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” like no album version ever could. So too with a more lilting than shuffling “Fuel For Fire.” Ward seemed as invested in his D.C. fans as they were in him.
Ward played fan favorites from all four albums of his pre-Deschanel duo days, the most audience-appreciated being “Chinese Translation,” “Poison Cup” and concert-closer “Magic Trick” from his 2006 album Post-War. But compositions from Ward’s recent release Hold Time held their own among the favorites, and in comparison Ward played them with all the fervor of a gifted musician somewhat bored with playing the same old songs from his past tours. “Never Had Nobody Like You,” the reinvigorated Buddy Holly tune, “Rave On,” and “Fisher of Men” (which Ward, beaming at the crowd, seemed most pleased to play) were as well received as the “classics,” even if the applause followed the song instead of kicked it off.
Of course, Ward’s prolific plucking shone in a requisite cover from his personal guitar hero, John Fahey. And of course, fans had to peel themselves off the floor, after the encore, before exiting Sixth & I. But quite surprisingly, for such realizations are most always so, Ward solidified himself on stage Saturday night as this generation’s folk-guitar icon.