The Great American Music Hall is one of those venues that with its combination of gilded ambiance, storied history and spooky atmosphere….creates a kind of off-the-grid node, a super-charged creative space, that adds something intangible to whatever goes on there. The Hall is at once emblematic of the city of San Francisco…just off the seedy corner of O’Farrell and Polk streets at the entrance to the Tenderloin…and at the same time, it is, like the best clubs, quite literally another realm entirely, another world, someplace you step into…a place of magic.
For a long time now, it’s been a club where acts play on their way up. One of the last stops on the small club circuit on the way to bigger halls, bigger venues, greater reknown. It’s the kind of venue that, when a friend says…”I may have a free ticket to see this guy, at the Great American Music Hall”…you go.
Matt Ward is a singer-songwriter known as M. Ward. I’d never heard of him. My buddy J. was shocked at this. “You can’t be serious.”
Of course, I was. Mildly claustrophobic veteran of many live shows that I am…my finger is currently about five beats behind the musical pulse of my generation, that group of kids they used to call X a long time ago before that moniker, like us, grew too old for that shit.
J. and I were sitting after work in a downtown Oakland bar at 7PM…and he was explaining to me that M. Ward was a show I didn’t want to miss. Is he like Dan Bern, I asked? `No,’ J. replied…’Dan Bern wants to be Dylan, M. Ward wants to be Tom Waits.’ Ahhh…
So J. called P. to find out if she had that free ticket. She did. P. would leave it for me with her friend T. at a bar next to the Roxie on 16th street…if we could make it there. So J. and I jumped on BART, got off at Civic Center…jumped into the waiting VW van of J’s friend G. and drove to the bar where I proceeded to futiley ask folks if they were “P’s friend T.”…….before I broke down and called T.’s cell phone. T. was standing right next to me…looking down, he saw my strange phone number on his caller id and said to his friend…”Who the fuck is this?” When I volunteered, `Me’, he smiled and proferred the ticket. And like that, I was in.
Like all modern music clubs, getting into the Great American Music Hall requires a kind of running of the gauntlet. Rules and regulations delivered by stern-faced, seen-it-all employees who can barely hide their disdain for you…which of course is really misdirected BS because in all likelihood if they didn’t work there….they would BE you…I mean, they like the music too. At any rate, once inside the Hall, you see that it really IS a music hall…the kind of small entertainment venue that preceded and then flourished during the vaudeville era. A gilded palace with human scale. A Globe theater. An Odeon. The kind of place that feels like Mozart would have happily produced `the Magic Flute’ for a cheering 18th century populace….or, earlier, Ben Jonson might have seen one of his masques performed.
The show was sold out. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness…I surveyed the crowd. They were me and I was them. A teeming throng of college-educated, largely white bread kids, creative professionals in their twenties and thirties hungry for music that they’d loved and listened to on their iPods for months. Nervous. Self-conscious. Well-behaved. Friendly. Looking at each other but never, ahem, really making eye contact. Hanging out.
Everyone in this crowd, including myself….was sporting meaningful signifiers of a certain type…a faded ball cap, a tattoo, a cool t-shirt, vintage sneakers, a pair of courderoys. Which was fitting, because when the lights dimmed for the main act…and M. Ward took the stage, a lone figure with a vintage guitar in the spotlight…he was basically a guy in a sweater and a blue baseball cap pulled tight over his eyes. He was “us” too.
M. Ward can really play acoustic guitar. If you are into that, go see him if you can. For all the thousands of guitar-playing American kids holed up in basements and apartments with roommates…for all those duffers strumming on porches littered with beer cans…out of those brilliant souls who’ve turned humble open mic nights into something memorable and unforgettable…or even those urban legends like Flathead or Satan who’ve given their music away for free on streetcorners the world over…M. Ward really is something special when he sings and plays guitar, he has that lyrical touch that folks have been rumoured to sell their souls for.
He’s young and gifted, and has a voice that oozes mood. And, yeah, in that he’s like Dan Bern being like Dylan…like Tom Waits or Nick Cave. But let’s face it, Dylan and Tom Waits were being like somebody else themselves…Spider John, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong…but on the way there, like all artists, they became something significant in their own rights…for us and with us…in conjunction with their audience. That’s how it works, and, if you ask me, how it always has.
There were moments, however, in that crowd of fans reverently swaying their heads, holding on to every note with a silence that was eerie, when I realized that the thread of the music being played was already older, more ancient and more venerable than when Alan Lomax pushed `record’ on his reel-to-reel sitting in front of Leadbelly (and then copyrighted it…the ultimate `crossover’)…moments where I found that, for myself, I couldn’t just give myself to the songs without getting all wracked up with self-conscious distractions relating to the audience and the musician himself. Moments where I wished I was in New Orleans where there’s eye contact and head-nodding in the crowd and where the acknowledgment of the past is explicit and forms a continuum that’s larger than even the best artists.
Authenticity is the craw in the maw of “our generation.” It’s awkward. And, if you ask me, that’s just the way it is, too, and the way it’s gonna be.
But there were also moments, like the intial acoustic number….or the encore where he did a langourous cover of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, a cover that powerfully reinvented and deepened the song…where the conjunction of the venue, the artist, and the crowd created something memorable and pure. Something hypnotic and new.
And that’s fitting. Because, for all his folkroots nods, M. Ward belongs to David Bowie’s generation…our post-modern one. And in that context, he, like Bowie, is driven, creative…committed to bringing his own personal vocabulary out and sharing it any way he can. Experimenting with one goal in mind…making a connection with his listeners…like artists have for as long as people have sung songs…conveying something of his private self in order to draw that out of his audience, so that for one moment…like in the awkward silence at the Great American Music Hall the other night…something is created that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
essay © 2005 paul delehanty / kid oakland
published as well at Liberal Street Fight, which is having some technical difficulties at the moment.