"Do you recognize this idiot from seven days ago?,” a jokingly self-referential M. Ward asked a few songs into his late-evening set Friday. Then, “But I gotta say, this Coachella seems to be the one." It certainly was for the Los Angeleno songsmith and brains behind She & Him. In his black shirt and big black shades, Ward’s usually dour onstage persona was already cracking into smiles on the first song, "Poison Cup." It was set to be a good show from the get-go.
His five-piece band was all about the boogie-woogie good times, ditching Ward’s many downcast tunes to keep the mood upbeat. They battered through “Me and My Shadow,” which was straight rollicking fun, thanks in part to the soul of the backing band—a older guy, at least in his late 60s, who skiffled on acoustic as Ward riffed on his gold-lined vintage axe. His band were sharp, swapping bass for guitar, piano for trumpet, percussion for lap steel. I couldn’t help but picture these dudes jamming in some LA bungalow, hidden in a nook deep in the hills somewhere. Yes, it's enough to make you consider moving West.
Their rootsy jangle was especially tight on “I Get Ideas,” with Ward bleeding his heart dry, pleading "I hope that you could love me too / That's the whole idea." It made bands like Dawes, who offered a similar sound just an hour or so earlier, seem downright sleepy. Funny, because Ward later brought out the LA upstarts for a joyfully unhinged take on the Chuck Berry classic "Roll Over Beethoven." The usually tame Ward let loose, leading the expanded band with gusto and extra rasp in his pipes. Pay attention, kiddies: This was a lesson from SoCal's currently reigning Americana-roots troubadour and hopefully it rubs off (because, seriously, Dawes are boring).
In particular, Dawes should heed Ward’s guitar prowess—dude’s wildly underrated. On "For Beginners," he laid jazzy lead notes on the otherwise simple acoustic tune, handling the whammy bar like a joystick; when he shook the silver bar it looked like the vibrations shot through his whole body, grounding his feet to the stage.
"And his eyes tell everything," said one concertgoer on my right. They did; big and goggly, they were an animated pair with his furled brows. It was yet another reminder that that this was, in fact, M. Ward’s Coachella.