Pure, unconditional love. That is the only way to describe the sold-out crowd at the last concert of ZZ Ward’s Storm Tour in the Fonda Theater Thursday night. Many of those fans had traveled hundreds of miles to see her and they let her know how much they loved her. And Ward returned the love many times over.
Striding on stage after a killer set by Black Pistol Fire, rocking her signature Fedora, studded black leather low rider pants and a skin colored sleeveless top, Ward launched into “Let It Burn” with an intensity that got the audience screaming in the first verse. When she pulled out her harmonica the screaming went nonstop. Moving from “Let it Burn” to “Ghost” and then onto “Put the Gun Down” with her acoustic guitar, the blues rock goddess’s country-curl rock voice vibrated all the way to the back row of the packed balcony. Power and confidence flowed from the stage and loved flowed back.
That love has been building since 2012 when she released her debut EP, Criminal, and then her first full album, Til the Casket Drops, and spun out the single, “Put the Gun Down”, which broke into the top 10 on radio charts in 2013. But her love for music goes back to her childhood; at the age of 12 she joined her first band, with her father, channeling the love for her inspirations — Albert King, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Vera Ward and Bit Mama Thorton. But she also listened to hip hop and rock as well as blues, which is why she so smoothly blends them into her songs, both from the stage on in the mixtapes she is famous for.
All of that history came together as she pulled the audience close and belted her early hit “Til the Casket Drops” and then moved onto “Hold On” from The Storm album with full audience engagement – singing, clapping cheering. That continued when she switched to an electric guitar and joked with the crowd as she launched into a rocking “Ride”. Lowering the temperature with her aching, folk driven album title track “Storm”, she managed to amp up the enthusiasm.
“Storm”, more than any other song defines the full range of the ZZ Ward phenomenon. Seamlessly bringing together the tightly-bowed vocals of Americana with the aching pain of blues and pulse-pounding poetry of rock and rap, Ward demolishes genre walls while gathering in fans from all of those genres. She is an artist of our time and her generation. At 32 years old she manages to be both a millennial and an old soul with wisdom loved by lyric meisters as well as hashtag devotees. And she does in a range of musical wrappings that stir the body as much as the soul – especially live.
Perched on a stool in a single spotlight, Ward told the story of her beginnings in the blues when her dad, who was in the audience that night, took her to clubs she was too young to be in so they put a black X on her hand. She gave him a shout out and the fans gave him a cheer. She celebrated the moment with a Sun House song from The Storm album, “Grinnin’ In Your Face”. Her gut-twisting harmonica notes and stretched-out words rendered the room silent even as the guitars moved in and propelled the classic forward.
She followed with “Bag o Bones”, “Lil’ Darlin”, and a “Mary Wells” with near-psychedelic drum and guitar solos. She wrapped the night with a defiant “She Ain’t Me” and then holding only a radio mic, danced across the stage in an unleased “Blue Eyes Blind.” The fans loved it, but of, course, they were not going to let her go without and encore song. Of course, she gave them two encore songs. Coming back on stage, she went to the piano and ripped out “Domino” and then picking up the radio mic again, danced in the spotlight as the audience clapped and sang “365 Days”.
Ward kept up the energy Thursday night through an exhausting set list of 18 songs, plus an impromptu “Cannonball”, with virtually no letup. Her performance, talent, energy and power made it clear that blues rock is no longer a man’s game. Thursday night it was her game. And it’s not over. Next week she heads for Pennsylvania for The Peach Festival, and she will be on the road again in June and July, spreading, and enjoying, the love.