ZZ Ward in D.C.

Nancy Dunham on October 1, 2013

ZZ Ward

9:30 Club

Washington, D.C.

September 28, 2013

ZZ Ward’s concert at the 9:30 Club in Washington was an “early show” in name only. Both floors of the 1200-capacity hot spot were jammed with hipster fans that howled with excitement when the house lights went down and the artist’s banner was unfurled from the top of the stage. Even the club’s killer sound system couldn’t completely douse the fan’s audible ardor as Ward and her band took the stage and jumped right into a booming thrill ride through the 16-song set. The throbbing bass, wailing guitars and Ward’s throaty vocals seemed to swirl into one and ricochet off the walls as the group moved from a rendition of Nina Simone’s ‘Be My Husband,’ into Ward-penned songs starting with ‘Overdue,’ and ‘Put the Gun Down,’ which is on her debut album Til the Casket Drops.

“DC! Damn, you guys look good,” the 27-year old blues-hop-soul artist, wearing her trademark fedora, shouted to the crowd. “And it’s only 7:30! This is our first time in DC and I can’t thank you enough for coming out and hanging with us.”

The last year of Ward’s career can be likened, in the very best sense, to a runaway train. In the year since her debut was released, Ward has become the “It” girl of Spotify and satellite radio, appeared on high-profile television shows including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and had her music featured on television shows including ABC’s Pretty Little Liars — all without changing the sound or style that has engaged fans from the start.

On a tour bus parked in Coral Gables, Florida, a few days before the 9:30 Club show, Ward’s nine-month old Border Terrier puppy Muddy Waters happily nipped at a favorite rope toy while Ward talked about how her comfort level has grown with her career.

“You get to a certain level when you’re talking so much, you just get comfortable showing yourself to people and being yourself around people,” she said. “You can’t be afraid that something negative [such as reviews] will come from it. You just want to connect to people.”

Not that she has always found that easy. After moving from her home in Oregon to Los Angeles in 2009, Ward sometimes found herself lonely and adrift as she worked to book club dates, create posters, and sell demos from her car.

“You know, I grew up in a part of the country where this didn’t exist,” she said. “Not everything has been perfect and positive. There was a moment when I moved to L.A. when I was like ‘Man, I want to go home.’ I thought through it and stayed and kept working. I think that [tenacity] is what separates the people who make it in this world from those that don’t. You have to be your own best friend.”

That philosophy has served her well, including when faced with unnerving high-profile appearances, such as her first Tonight Show appearance with Leno and his guest actress Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Hollywood royalty Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis and the wife of filmmaker and actor Christopher Guest.

“The first time I did it, it was pretty crazy,” she said of the Tonight Show. “I tried not to think about it, to just walk into it. When I was thinking about it, it was ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But then I was probably thinking how I could be myself. There is so much hype with TV and celebrities and everything. People just want to be people and talk to each other.”

And talk she did at the 9:30 Club. Her banter was short but sincere as she discussed the inspiration for her various songs including ‘Got It Bad’ (“This is about dating a bad boy and wasting a lot of my time”); moved into ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’ to which the audience’s impromptu sing-along elicited a verbal high-five from Ward in the form of “You guys are awesome!”; ‘365 Days’ (“Waiting for someone to change. That’s a really, really bad idea.”); and ‘Last Love Song’ (“I wrote so many songs about this guy and I didn’t know what to call it. So that’s why it’s called ‘Last Love Song.’)

The all-ages crowd that skewed heavily toward 20- and 30-somethings jockeyed for standing room at the front of the stage, sometimes reaching into the caged area for news photographers in an attempt to touch.In the back of the club, the merchandise table did a steady business with fans handing over cash for t-shirts, hats and posters.

It’s not difficult to understand the enthusiasm of the crowd.The performance by Ward and her band underscored they are relative newcomers but already leagues away from the wafer-thin talents that are touted as musical wunderkinds at venues and on reality shows these days. Ward’s band is nothing if not superb, seemingly never making a musical misstep, but it was Ward’s Joan Osborne-meets-Rickie Lee Jones-voice and her high-energy enthusiasm—moving fluidly around the stage, reaching out to fans, jumping from guitar to harmonica and back—that stole the show.

For an artist that gauges a shows’ success by her ability to connect with the fans, the 9:30 Club show was clearly off the charts.