Rilo Kiley, M. Ward and A Band of 4

Songwriter and guitar virtuoso M. Ward (M. is for Matt) is one of those musicians people call a showman--the kind you imagine would be a natural at vaudeville if he'd been around a few decades earlier. Tom Waits is another one, and the two share an out-of-their-time penchant for sad story-songs gruffly sung, varied in instrumentation and lovingly produced, where "confessional" is not part of the descriptive lexicon. So it was strange to see M. Ward, a Californian based in Portland, Oregon, tour last fall in a supporting slot for Bright Eyes, whose lyrics tend to comprise Conor Oberst's dirty laundry and the girls who helped dirty it. Ward's usually imposing stage presence was dwarfed by the angst that followed, his fictional lyrical leaps and the subtlety of his guitar-picking (oft compared to John Fahey's) diluted.

Better, then, to experience M. Ward on Friday at Rubber Gloves with L.A. quartet Rilo Kiley as both tour mate and backing band (as A Band of 4). Both acts have a high sense of drama--Rilo Kiley is one-half reformed child actors--and the small room makes for more intimate theater. Rilo Kiley is, again, a "confessional" Saddle Creek band, this time with a sweet-voiced and disarming front woman in Jenny Lewis. But they're also keen ironists, and some fans call their sharp stage banter (and occasional stage dives--heads up during "With Arms Outstretched") more of a draw than their music. Their bias toward twang--more obvious on their latest, The Execution of All Things, than on their indie-rocking Barsuk debut, Take-offs and Landings--should help propel Ward into the country-folk magnet he is on his latest, Transfiguration of Vincent. It'll also hold him back from the cliff he sometimes nears, the one where Garrison Keillor beckons him from below, proffering hackneyed, old-timey suicide. Just back from tours abroad that matched him with Vic Chesnutt and Yo La Tengo, respectively, Ward could be on his way toward a more "grown-up" audience. Catch him now before the NPR crowd catches on.

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