After folk opener Freakwater, as a celebrity-induced tension fell over the unnaturally hushed Variety Playhouse crowd waiting for M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel to take the stage, my skepticism abounded. I wondered whether all these people were excited about the music they were about to hear, or were they just waiting to see a movie star? I wondered if the music would hold up to "vanity project" scrutiny. (I enjoyed She & Him's recent debut, Volume One, but wasn't floored by it.) I wondered if She & Him
performances were as awkward as they'd been rumored to be. I wondered
what kind of contrast there would be between the veteran M. Ward's
musicianship and newcomer Deschanel's.
It turns out the Atlanta crowd's preemptive awe wasn't unwarranted, though my skepticism was.
With a single guitar strum from Ward, Deschanel's clear, saccharine
voice rang out across the Playhouse. "My eyes are so weary," she
crooned on opener "Black Hole," and it certainly felt as if we had all been hypnotized. The
strange crowd silence persisted between sporadic bouts of cheering brought on
by Ward's ever-impressive guitar solos, and Deschanel's harmonizing with
Lavendar Diamond's Becky Stark on back-up vocals, along with their impeccable backing band. The songs, though for the most part
faithful to the album versions, took on a clarity and shimmering beauty
I found wholly surprising.
The mutual reverence between crowd and
performers was not to hold, however. During the night's finest
moment, Deschanel and Ward's duet version of "You Really Gotta Hold On
Me," they looked at each other in the eyes and sang "Hold me, hold me,
hold me." We held our breath, then heard Ward's voice alone and
strong for the first time that night, and it wrought a knee-jerk cheer
from us, a strange kind of thrill. As the two stretched a dramatic
silence between verses, an audience member, most likely moved by this
same overwhelming emotion (or just feeling punchy), hollered out, "I'll hold you both!"
smiled, Ward smiled, and within a few beats the previously-poised Deschanel was
giggling behind the microphone, the magical stasis broken
but by no means ruined. Suddenly, they were just a band and we were just their
listeners, and it was just a fantastic performance.
After running through almost the entirety of Volume One, covering a
Joni Mitchell song, performing a new track (which may answer questions
about She & Him's continued collaboration) the night concluded with an encore of country classic "Hello Stranger" with Freakwater. And my doubts had been completely wiped away.
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