Review: M. Ward @ Howler (Melbourne)

M. Ward played Howler (Melbourne) on 10 December, 2023.
Bron is a Melbourne-based science journalist who loves to return 'home' to a band room any chance she gets. She has 25 years' experience and has worked for Rolling Stone, Blunt, The Sydney Morning Herald, JUICE and many more.

Indie Americana artist M. Ward – or Matthew Ward, off stage – has long had a happy second home in Australia, on the other side of the world to his Portland, Oregon, base.

While only recently visiting these shores, Ward wasted no time with a return trip, this time in celebration of the 20th anniversary of his acclaimed third album, 'Transfiguration Of Vincent', a record that really founded his loyal following here.

Not surprisingly, this 'album' tour, while certainly focused around this folk gem, was much more than a run-through a track list; Ward has the ability to make each show feel like a personal, special experience, and tonight's grey, sticky summer night in Melbourne (10 December) was certainly one of these gigs.

Howler is often a weird space for a relatively quiet indie gig on a Sunday; case in point, the courtyard had just hosted a huge, free day party featuring a Kite String Tangle DJ set, following a huge Saturday night set indoors.

While most of the revellers had finally called it a night by 8pm, shortly before Ward was due to take to the stage, the remnants of outdoors compared to the relative pin-drop quiet inside the band room was quite the contrast.

However, it was anything but a sombre affair. Ward was back with his Undertakers full band, who came and went throughout the set but provided fitting honkytonk-tinged accompaniment that helped shape a varied set.

There were many highlights, with Ward going through classics like 'Outta My Head', 'Undertaker' and 'Helicopter' with both precision and heart that felt like it was not the last show of the tour, and he had not played these songs nearly every night for a few weeks.

The quietly spoken, affable Ward directed proceedings but also let them also unwind at seemingly their own pace; nothing felt rushed or going-through-the-motions. It's something the songwriter delivers through his albums, too, and something that makes both his performances and his recordings so comforting, engaging and just plain lovely.

There was a glimpse of his 2023 'Supernatural Thing' album, in a rousing rendition of the title track, and older favourites, like 'Rollercoaster' from 2006's 'Post-War', and they slotted well into a set that was largely written more than two decades earlier.

Meanwhile, his haunting, fragile take on David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' was a stunning interlude, as the adoring crowd sang along in hushed tones so as not to overshadow Ward.

The audience, which nicely filled out the large Howler band room, was as expected heavily represented by people who have most likely been following Ward's career since the early 2000s.

However, there was a wonderful mix of punters who looked barely old enough to have been alive when his debut record 'Duet For Guitars #2' came out in 1999. That in itself was testament to Ward's endurance and his timelessness sound, one that has clear references to certain eras, but itself never sounds bound or defined by them.

Ward promised a party for the last show of the tour, and he certainly was not kidding; already known for long sets, this Sunday show ran later than quite a few venues out on Brunswick's Sydney Road strip. But with no one checking phones or watches for times, and the bar queue consistently full, everyone was with Ward till the very last note.

For an artist who has plenty of sombre material in his catalogue, Ward can sure deliver a rollicking, upbeat good time.

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