Zsuzsanna Eva Ward was born in Abington, PA, in the late eighties and spent her youth absorbing her dad’s blues records as well as her brother’s hip-hop albums. Fast forward to 2014 and that little girl has become ZZ Ward, a rising music star with a sound that combines the lyrical and sonic tropes of blues and soul as well as the rhythms of hip hop. Friday night Ward and her tight three-piece band packed the Theatre of Living Arts and thrilled a winter-weary hometown crowd on the opening night of her Last Love Tour. Ward took the stage wearing her trademark low-slung Fedora and a black fuzzy jacket, packing a harmonica, looking part gangster and part blue eyed soul princess. Her voice is a versatile weapon in a live setting, alternately sultry come hither croon and soul-baring blues at the drop of a hat. Ward’s band matched the intensity of her vocals, with extra props going to her bass player who laid down a river of rubbery baselines all set long.

The 15-song set list drew from both her major label debut Til The Casket Drops and Eleven Roses, the online-only demo/mixtape that preceded it. Highlights from the latter included the raw and haunting opening song “OVERdUe” and the thundering “Cinnamon Stix. But it was tracks from Til The Casket Drops that were the most persuaive and convincing. Early in the set, Ward and her band delivered a searing one two punch of piano and guitar fueled stompers “Til The Casket Drops” and “Put The Gun Down.” Later, Ward sounded like she was drowning in a sea of heartache during the rarely played bluesy piano ballad “Lil Darlin.” The highlight of the set was a stunning version of “Last Love Song” that showed why the tour is named after this song. Ward sat on a stool in the middle of the stage with an acoustic guitar on her lap. Her eyes were closed for part of the song as she delicately picked out the spectral guitar notes. Ward’s guitarist manned a keyboard and played the emotive piano notes while the drummer gently played shimmering flourishes on the cymbals with mallets. On top of that wall of sound Ward delivered the vocals –a last goodbye and gentle exorcism of a bad love. The song swelled to a beautiful bridge then rolled to an emotional finish and faded out, leaving the crowd drained but roaring their support. Ward might have had to extinguish that love, but her star is clearly shining bright. — PETE TROSHAK