ZZ Ward is the kind of act that Cities 97 loves as it repositions itself closer to Top 40. A little soulful, a little bluesy, catchy hooks, acoustic guitar, a hint of hip-hop.
Think a mashup of KT Tunstall ("Black Horse & the Cherry Tree" vibe), Brandi Carlile, Grace Potter, Melissa Etheridge (remember her?) and even Kesha. That’s the way Ward came across Friday at the sold-out Varsity Theater.
Her performance was more impressive than her 2012 debut album, “Till the Casket Drops,” if only because the music was more dynamic and her hip-hop-schooled backup trio so effective.
Ward, 24, who grew up in Oregon but now lives in L.A., is clearly talented, with a slightly raspy soulful voice and a bit of sass and snarl. She still hasn’t found her comfort zone onstage. Should she stand up and play acoustic guitar? Stand up and play electric piano? Or sing without worrying about playing any instrument? Will she learn how to dance to her own music?
Oddly, Ward’s performance seemed to turnaround midway when she sat down on a stool and sang the Carlile-evoking “Last Love Song,” (a smartly written piece), the Etta James-inspired “Charlie Ain’t Home,” and bluesman Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” which featured a bluesy call-and-response between Erick Walls’ guitar and Ward’s voice. She finally shifted into a higher gear and, for the first time all night, got lost in her singing.
There is a certain sing-song, nursery rhyming quality to her choruses (perhaps influenced by rapper Nelly). She got the crowd – predominantly women, who clearly knew the tunes well – to sing the many “oh oh oh’s” and “woah woah oh’s” in her tunes. With her talk-sing/hip-hop first verses and catchy choruses, Ward clearly knows how to craft winning, crowd-pleasing music. And her lyrics about guys who done her wrong resonated with her burgeoning female fan base.
On the down side, Ward performed for only 55 minutes, including her encore. That’s too short for a headliner – even if the ticket price was a modest $12.
Perhaps Ward was worn out from having performed small shows at Cities 97, KTWN and Best Buy on Friday – plus a meet-and-greet at Target world headquarters.
Don’t be surprised if next time Ward comes to town, she offers a longer set – and it’s part of Cities 97’s Basilica Block Party.