he pairing of Rhiannon Giddens with M. Ward was nearly as incongruous as when Giddens recently opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in Ontario, Cal. Unlike fans at the McGraw/Hill show, though, where most fans were anxious to be in the presence of a country music royal couple, many left M. Ward's performance early, long before it was over. As good as Giddens was (and is), Ward is equally special; albeit, in significantly different ways, and it was a shame everyone didn't stick around.
Both artists are talented musicians. Ward is a master guitarist, whether playing rockabilly riffs on his electric guitar or doing something a little folky with an acoustic. You learn much from an artist's choices for cover songs, and tonight Ward sang the fragile Daniel Johnston song, "Story of an Artist," accompanied only by an old piano. He also played and sang a reimagined "Rave On," the Buddy Holly nugget. One cover wasn't really a cover at all, as "The Sandman, The Brakeman and Me" is a song Ward recorded with Monsters of Folk.
Ward songs oftentimes draw upon time-tested love song topics. For instance, the breezy "Chinese Translation" asks the question: "What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart?" Ward saved best for last by beginning to play the chords "Moon River," before asking one of his favorite singers, Victoria Williams, to join him on stage for a duet. It was like extra tasty icing on a beautiful cake.
Giddens' set was just as tasty and much more eclectic. The haunting specter of slavery was addressed with "At the Purchaser's Option," from the recent "Freedom Highway" album and heavenly gospel (from the same album) with "We Could Fly.
Interspersed among these album tracks, Giddens found room for a few country fiddle tunes (she plays both the banjo and fiddle extremely well), as well as a Cajun number. Once again, the show stopper was her extra bluesy slow burn version of the Patsy Cline hit, "She's Got You."
Giddens and M. Ward may have little in common, stylistically, but they're special artists, each. They both draw from roots, different roots, and what they do with these sources always turns out truly unique.