BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER Judging by Friday’s night’s performance at the Tower, every drop of the gallons of ink spilled extolling the virtues of Norah Jones is justified. She is a poised and classy young lady with a NataliePortman-esque bearing, blessed with enormous talent and a voice that is wise and soulful beyond her relatively tender years. And it will be our pleasure to hear her grow into that voice in the coming years. However, a Grammy-winner like Jones doesn’t need the Inquirer’s megaphone to alert you to her existence.
Instead, let me expend the remainder of my precious word count to sing the praises of M. Ward, Jones’ hand-picked opening act. M. Ward is a sad-eyed troubadour from Portland, Ore., who has released five albums of Jiminy Cricket porch folk and enigmatic lo-fi attic blues, each invested with a moonlit vibe that suggests there’s a kind of hush all over the world tonight. Ward teases high emotion out of low-key compositions, coloring his recordings with the sepia-toned crackle and hiss of old rural blues recordings, drifty dustbowl sadness and the submarine murk of vintage echo.
Maybe it was the dusky lighting or the standard lack of attention paid to opening acts, but when Ward took the stage accompanied by Jones for a duet on “One Life Away” the presence of the headliner went largely unnoticed before she’d already exited to the wings. Ward, a gifted interpreter of obscure chestnuts, then sat down at the grand piano and plunked out mesmerizing, heart-tugging renditions of Louis Armstrong’s “Some Day You Will Be Sorry” and Daniel Johnston’s “Story Of An Artist.” But the money shot came near the end of Ward’s set when, in the middle-eight of “Undertaker,” he began a wordless moan, sounding like a cross between the hoot of an owl and the trill of a whippoorwill, that evoked all the woodsy mysticism, historical expansiveness and self-reliant transcendentalism of American music — from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam. Now, that’s a pretty neat trick.