9/13/15 – Royale

If my name were Zsuzsanna Eva Ward, you’d be hard pressed to get me to go by anything else. For the music industry, however, “ZZ Ward” works well.

Royale’s stage lit up to welcome the singer on Sunday night with a huge projection of her name. The venue, which doubles as a nightclub, was the perfect place to hold someone of her magnitude; Ward has the presence of a pop star with old soul talent.

She took the stage dressed in a black mini skirt, white pressed top, black tie, and bowler hat. Her stage banter was affectionate but rehearsed; we felt loved but held at arm’s length. It was clear that Ward was going for image and sex appeal. An all-male standard stage band consisting of piano, bass, guitar, and drums backed her up. They remained in shadow for most of the performance, highlighting the frontwoman (though they were allowed a moment in the spotlight during solos).

Ward released her debut EP, Criminal, in 2012, making her a relatively new artist. Her career covers quite a bit of ground, however, which her set list showcased.

“I’m going to take you on a journey,” she said, “and we’ll start way back at the beginning with Eleven Roses” (a free mixtape that she did in February of 2012). Although some may scoff at calling a three-year career a “journey,” she had the confidence to pull that statement off. Ward’s work has evolved throughout her career. Eleven Roses is based on hip-hop beats, while Criminal ventures more into pop territory (while still keeping her soulful blues edge).

Her latest work, the Love and War EP released this August, is a little more commercial. It’s still got a bite (most notably in the track “Lonely”), but the refrains are more calculated. Hopefully this isn’t the beginning of a movement towards assimilation into the pop music industry, because Ward’s grit is what makes her stand out. Her voice is trained and edgy but a little bit imperfect — it’s raw. She’s also got a great groan, which she showed off in her performance of “Til the Casket Drops.”

Sometimes Ward-the-frontwoman seemed to battle Ward-the-musician. It was a little awkward when she took her hands off of her guitar to gesticulate along with her lyrics, though she managed to get her fingers back to the right frets in time. Though a deft musician (even knocking out a perfect harmonica solo at one point), she seemed most at ease when she put her guitar down and focused on singing. It certainly freed things up for her dance moves.

ZZ Ward has a lot going on — she’s a gifted multi-instrumentalist and a creative talent, but her Royale show hinted that she might be focusing her efforts on being a performer. Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive categories, but it takes practice to get the mix right. This was a special performance because it highlighted an artist in transition. Ward may soon present herself in a whole new way. Then again, she may decide that her magic is most powerful right where she’s at. If the audience’s hip swaying was anything to go by, they liked what they heard.

Evolution in Action: ZZ Ward
  • Strong stage presence
  • Soulful voice
  • Confident multi-instrumentalist
  • Some awkward transitions within songs
  • Confidence bordered on cockiness

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