VIC CHESNUTT with M. WARD at the Horseshoe, April 14. Tickets: $12-$15. Attendance: 270. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
When Portland singer-song-writer M. Ward first took the stage at the Horseshoe Monday night, few people in the boomer-skewed crowd looked up from their beers. With a hockey game on in the front room and unaffecting jazz-lite on the canned soundtrack, Ward's fuzzy sound check seemed to be more of an annoyance for the Vic Chesnutt fans than a sign the show was about to start.The painfully unassuming Ward could barely raise his voice above a whisper, and you felt bad for him. But then he started whaling on his beat-up acoustic, and everything changed.
His fingers whizzed over the strings to pull off arpeggios that grew into folked-up orchestrals and creeping blues ballads. When he added mournful harmonica chords to the mix, it was hard to believe there was only one guy onstage. The sound was gorgeously massive.
But it's his voice that really impresses. When he's not playing, the guy looks like a copy shop clerk who can barely meet your gaze. So when he opens his mouth and utters a haunting oak-cured rasp that sounds like it was stolen from Bessie Smith, it's a major shock.
Alternating between two mikes, Ward built echoing call-and-response vocal layers around tunes from his Transfiguration Of Vincent disc. His musical personality is so strong that, by the time he delivered a raw version of Let's Dance, mumbling, "An old English dude taught me this blues song," it was hard to remember it'd been written by some guy named Bowie.
He'd already clearly wowed headliner Chesnutt, who surreptitiously rolled up to the front of the stage to catch Ward's set.
Then Chesnutt took the stage, one obviously not designed to let an audience watch a guy in a wheelchair.
Part of the power of Chesnutt's live show is how hard the paraplegic rocks on a small folk guitar. But as the throngs shoved toward the stage, most people more than a metre or two back lost the effect of witnessing the slumped man's hands manipulating lead solos and achingly beautiful chords filtered through cranked-up distortion pedals.
The set itself was still pretty good. Backed by a three-piece band, he warbled through two hours of material, most of it from his recent Silver Lake album, juxtaposing his charmingly warped homilies with hilarious banter.
The whole thing made me realize that the clubs in this city are shittily equipped for the differently abled. I was enraged to see audience members virtually ignore one woman in a wheelchair when she tried to fight her way to the front. Club owners should take issues of access to heart.