It was pouring buckets that wreaked havoc in Colorado the week that ZZ Ward arrived in mid-September with her Down and Dirty Shine tour.
“I was getting a little nervous about the weather,” Ward said, acknowledging the situation more than halfway through her set at the Ogden Theatre in Denver on September 14. Her previous day was spent at the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in southwest Colorado, where she played early on a main stage that later included Allen Stone, Gary Clark Jr. and the Black Crowes.
“I was like, ‘Please stay away from Denver. We gotta get there. You can’t stop us rain.’ ”
Apparently not. Ward is singing in the reign right now as she wins over audiences across the country, including a Saturday night crowd that was ready to party after finally enjoying a sunny day. That brought some calm to the area after the resulting floods throughout the state cost more than a billion dollars in damage and caused at least eight lives to be lost.
Someone on Ward’s team should have thought twice about playing Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” ahead of her entrance. But the irony of that one misstep — Ward’s early cover of “I Can’t Stand the Rain” was more appropriate — seemed lost on an amped-up house just eager to forget Colorado’s troubles and witness America’s latest sensation.
It was a deal with Hollywood Records that provided a springboard. Less than a year has passed since the October 2012 release of Til the Casket Drops, Ward’s debut full-length album that embraces rock ‘n’ soul, R&B, pop and hip-hop, an amalgamation she likes to call Dirty Shine.
As she confidently covers a lot of musical ground while appearing nationally on Good Morning America, Conan and Leno, Ward is also all over the map on a nonstop touring schedule that grows along with her popularity.
For example, she has been in Denver several times over the past year, graduating from dingy dive bars like the Larimer Lounge to a much larger concert hall like the Ogden, where a long line formed early and a spirited gathering gave props to opening acts James Bay and Alpha Rev.
The electric atmosphere was reminiscent of the New Year’s Eve show with the Lumineers, a Denver-based group whose soaring flight plan to fame in 2012 Ward seems to be following in 2013.
On this night, with the Lumineers playing Red Rocks and Neko Case warbling downtown, one of Denver’s most reputable mid-sized venues was, if not completely sold out, nearly packed to the rafters for Ward.
What they saw was a fiery, energetic, engaging presence perform a 70-minute, 16-song set boosted by a superb three-man band — Erick Walls (guitar), Shadarius Shields (bass) and Chris Pat (drums) — that allowed Ward to stick mainly to her bread-and-butter vocals.
Oh, occasionally she would break out the harmonica (“Overdue,” “If I Could Be Her”), take a brief turn on the keyboards (“365 Days”) or thump on the acoustic guitar more like a percussion instrument. But it’s her vigorously expressive, seductive voice and a charismatic connectivity with the audience that are becoming trademarks as identifiable as her own signature line of fedoras.
Fortunately, Ward realizes her strengths, and leaves the rapping on the album to the rappers, including Kendrick Lamar (“Cryin Wolf”) and Freddie Gibbs (“Criminal”). But her croon will make you swoon, most effectively during a breakup ballad such as “Last Love Song,” which she said was written after falling “very deeply in love,” then getting “my heart ripped out of my chest.”
On swinging singalongs such as her first single, “Put the Gun Down” (remixed in December by Passion Pit), and “If I Could Be Her,” she didn’t need to lift a finger to get the requisite audience participation. They already knew the words.
Wearing a full-length fur-accented coat for the first three songs that she claimed felt more like a trash bag, black leather pants and beaded black boots, Ward certainly had reason to feel the heat.
“So, uh, you guys, it’s really hot in here isn’t it?” she asked less than a half-hour into the set. “I’m like sweating more than I’ve ever sweated at a show before. But I think it’s kind of sexy.”
Able to raise the room temperature to a higher degree, she was hot all right — on a number of levels.
The wild cheering was all the affirmation Ward needed as her Charlie chronicles followed — a loose adaption of idol Etta James’ "Waiting for Charlie (To Come Home)," then her own take on “Charlie Ain’t Home,” featuring Walls’ tasty acoustic licks.
All 11 cuts performed from the album — only “Home” and “Save My Life” didn’t make the set list — were greeted enthusiastically as Ward kept the joint jumping with a cheerleader’s zeal (“You like what you’re hearing Den-vuh?” “C’MON, DEN-VUH!”).
With cameras rolling for a future concert film, Ward made it a point to bring out a special guest. “You may not know him, but you will after tonight.”
She introduced him as DW, but the distinguished-looking gentleman in black whose real name is Chuck Ward strolled cooly onto the stage with harmonica in hand.
“This guy over here taught me everything that I know,” his proud daughter ZZ (whose initials are short for her real first name, Zsuzsanna) said of DW, her cute nickname for Daddy Ward. “He got me into the blues when I was a little kid. I don’t know who does that to their kids, but thank you.”
The crowd howled and never let up through a rousing cover of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” as DW’s harp playing provided the night’s biggest surprise — and some of the loudest reaction. The show of mutual affection after their number (left) kept the place buzzing and provided quite a memorable moment for them both. Maybe the dad who had his 12-year-old daughter singing in his blues band in the late ’90s should consider a comeback after his retirement from the biz.
Even after DW departed, the blues review continued as ZZ closed out the final 35 minutes with six successive songs from the album.
“When I wrote this record, I thought, I gotta write myself a song that makes me feel like I’m in a blues club, I’m in a blues bar,” she said to introduce “Lil Darlin.”
“Like when I was growing up, and just walking into places singing and jamming. You guys want to go with me to a blues club right now?”
They were all in all the way through set closer “Move Like U Stole it.” Much like Ward’s career, the momentum built to a staggering level as she took turns with her bandmates beating the drum during an encore of “Blue Eyes Blind.”
Associating herself with such authentic legends is a worthy objective, but being mentioned in the media alongside James, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and even Adele would make anyone perspire. She’s gotta lot of living to do to catch up with them, but here’s one true thing to consider.
Ward certainly sounds like a soul sister, proving — in the tradition of Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi and Grace Potter — that a lady of any skin color can sing the blues.
Come rain or come shine, this natural woman won’t even mind if you see her sweat.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of ZZ Ward and her band at the Ogden Theatre in Denver.