She & Him subtly charm at First Avenue
Throughout She & Him's jaunty sold out show at First Avenue on Saturday it seemed much more like a she and them show - the focus was consistently on frontwoman Zooey Deschanel, while Matt Ward seemed content to fade into the mix along with the five-piece backing band assembled behind the distinguished duo.
Deschanel's voice proved strong and true all evening long, and she was far more engaging and comfortable this time around than when they last played the Mainroom, but Ward is far too talented a musician to simply exist in the shadows, and his expressive vocals and subtle guitar flourishes were infrequent and often imperceptible during the 90-minute, 24-song performance.
The songs were all pretty peppy and decidedly throwback, echoing a more easygoing era of simpler songwriting and carefree expressions of love and longing. But both Deschanel and Ward added their own modern touches to the timeless tradition, which clearly resonated with the responsive, overflow crowd. Their set drew from the majority of both their albums, kicking off with wistful versions of "I Was Made For You," "Black Hole," and "Thieves" that really got the show off to a strong start. But the energy level lagged during the middle of the set, with the songs sounding a bit too indistinguishable due to Deschanel's somewhat limited vocal range and Ward's propensity to stay in the background and let her lead the way. Deschanel also spent a considerable amount of time behind a keyboard, plucking the piano playfully while adding another dimension to the no-frills arrangements. But the songs that really thrived were the ones that Ward took more of an active roll in, with his guitar riffs and backing vocals continually garnering cheers from an adoring audience who clearly wanted to hear more from him.
Midway through the show we all got our wish, as the rest of the group (which included openers the Chapin Sisters on backing vocals and keys) left the stage, and Matt and Zooey treated us to a trio of acoustic songs. During the first tenuous number, "Brand New Shoes," it seemed that both artists were reluctant to be in the spotlight, deferring to each other so much that the song drifted a bit. But with a stellar version of Joni Mitchell's "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio" the show really caught fire, and was quickly followed by a touching rendition of the Miracles classic "You Really Got A Hold On Me." The rest of the band swiftly joined the duo for a rollicking version of M. Ward's "Magic Trick" (featuring Deschanel on electric ukulele) that only built on the momentum from earlier, and was a clear highlight of the set along with the crowd singalong "In The Sun" that quickly followed, before which Deschanel instructed us "You don't have to be a good singer, you just have to mean it." Good advice that can be applied to any passion, it seems.
The end of the show featured a nice blend of the band's strongest songs ("This Is Not A Test," Why Do You Let Me Stay Here" and "Sweet Darlin'") and some well chosen covers (Skeeter Davis' "Gonna Get Along Without You Now," NRBQ's "Ridin' In My Car," and the sublime, solitary encore "Fools Rush In"), all of which highlighted the timeless, enduring essence of fine songwriting. But in order for this band to continually captivate audiences, Ward needs to take a more active and involved role in their live performances, for the star-struck allure of Deschanel will eventually fade a bit, and her voice and charm can only carry their shows for so long. In the future, Ward must step out of the background more often and assume ownership of these songs in order for them to fully thrive. But for Saturday night at least, She & Him helped usher in welcome summer breezes and left the crowd buoyed by the optimistic, lovelorn nature of their songs.
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