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M. Ward and Delta Spirit @ Henry Fonda Theater, 3/4/09

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Photos are by the very talented Leslie Kalohi for LAist

If you find yourself on a street corner singing "Maybe God is God. Maybe the Devil is me!" like some crazed Hollywood and Highland street preacher, chances are good that Matthew Vasquez had something to do with it. Like the sensation of a raw nerve pulsing deep down in your ear, his voice reaches into your skull, takes command of your vocal chords, and orders them to sing along, with or without you.

Don't try and fight it. It will not take no for an answer.

That voice, backed by gospel-influenced organs, old timey harmonica, jangly electric guitars and hard hitting percussion that feels like hail on the roof of a car, will make you feel like you've just joined some crazed rock n' roll church. (No, I don’t mean Christian rock - I mean the blues-founding, heart-pounding, sexed up gospel that birthed half of American music. ) What I'm trying to say is that the Delta Spirit has got soul. They've got soul in abundance.

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I saw the Delta Spiritheadline at the El Rey a few months ago, and they were decent, but last night they killed it. I have a sneaky suspicion it was due to the caliber of the opener. You don't want to be those fools who couldn't live up to M. Ward. There is a certain comfort in being a headliner. The audience bought the ticket to see you. They already love you and you've got nothing to really prove. Whereas when you're opening, you've got everything to prove. The audience has never heard of you or if they have, the majority of them are just impatient to see the headliner. It's an uphill battle through the disdain of strangers. Well let me tell you last night the Delta Spirit conquered that hill of apathetic viewers, planted a flag in them, and declared the Henry Fonda theirs.

The lone troubadour from Portland took the stage by himself on Wednesday night, staring out into the packed house with an bewildered expression that suggested he couldn't believe all of these adoring faces were for him. The stage was stripped of frills and flashing lights and contained only the essentials: just the man and his piano. A spotlight and a faux window, which occasionally lit up with fireflies, painted as the backdrop intensified the intimacy of his performance, making it feel almost as if we were simply hanging out in M. Ward’s barren living room.

Supporting his seventh album, Hold Time, Ward seems to have finally arrived. Ever since his first album in 1999, the buzz and later respect has been swirling around this man like small eddies of dust that are now close to tornado proportions. If this storm of praise has gone to Ward's head, you would never have known it from last night's show. There was no banter with the crowd, no jokes, just honest, intelligent songs about love, loss, and the lonely life on the road. "All the towns look the same, when you've left your heart in the Portland rain," Ward sang in a low husky voice, so desolately that we were almost convinced he was unhappy to be up there. Then after the the song ended, a swarm of friends, his band got on stage and the mood changed completely.

With his raspy signature voice, M. Ward sounds like a river god would (if river gods had rock bands, which they may have. Who knows?) Gravelly, often slow, relaxing, but never without a sense of purpose or a glimmer of danger, Ward's music burbles and rushes like cool water over unfinished rocks and boulders. You could close your eyes and imagine yourself tubing down a river in the summertime. Huckleberry Finn would raft these songs for weeks at a time. Drums curve the path of the river, the maracas chirp like crickets in the grassy banks, piano is the wind as it blows through the trees, and the guitars, (those intricate chords that require such nimble fingers,) are the rapids that pop up from nowhere and take your breath away.

As we all suspected she would, Zooey Deschanel graced the stage as a vision in maroon 2/3 of the way in. She and, ahem, Him launched into a wonderful version of the classic You've Really Got a Hold on Me by Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, which took all the light, playful air out of the song and instead turned it into a powerful plea for freedom.

Here's the thing: Covers are tricky beasts. You are inevitably going to displease someone. Do them, and do them right or not at all. You've Really Got a Hold on Me was one of four covers that Ward played that evening which also included a regrettable cover of Don Gibson's Oh, Lonesome Me, and the dubious achievement of transforming Buddy Holly's Rave On from a up tempo pop classic into a horrible dirge. But redemption came with Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven which Ward played near the end of the show, which he played by the book in all of it's loud, joyous glory.

It seems as though M. Ward, though hesitant at first, is really coming into his own. He has found a sound that is uniquely his an is unwilling to compromise it, which is refreshing. Which doesn't mean he doesn't like to experiment with new collaborations and ideas, it seems that he only gets stronger the more elements he adds. I just hope he never gives into those impulses to stay at home with his heart in Portland and continues his life on the road. (Surely you can bring your heart with you, Matt?)

If you didn't catch him at the Fonda on Wednesday, you can catch him again at the Coachella Festival next month.