He in his early 20s, she in her early 60s, Madisen and Ruth Ward spend a lot more time together than most grown men and their mothers. Hailing from Kansas City, the duo travels the globe as Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear and performs lively, soulful acoustic folk tunes side-by-side for adoring crowds.
One such crowd filled up Oak Cliff's unassuming, candle-lit Kessler Theater on Friday night to see the Wards do their thing. It was the mom and son's first time headlining in Dallas, even though it has been more than a year since they broke out of their Kansas City coffeehouse scene.
The fans in Dallas were well versed in the Wards' material, thanks partly to KXT-FM (97.1) which sponsored the show, and partly to the recent release of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear's debut album, Skeleton Crew. The record's a winner, teeming with jaunty, catchy story songs that find the son's vocal quirks blending well with the more classically trained instrument of his mother.
Madisen takes the lead on most of the verses in the recordings, but his mother certainly held her own Friday night at the Kessler. As a matter of introduction they alternated lead vocals during the first song, "Down in Mississippi," after they stepped on stage and sat down with their acoustic guitars. They remained seated, jam-session-style, when their drummer and bassist showed up for the second song.
Listening to the Wards banter between performances gave us an idea of what it might be like hanging out with them in their kitchen.
"This is my first time in Dallas," he said, looking over at his mom. "You ever been here?"
"Yeah," she said, with a strong "duh" tone to her voice.
He looked back at the audience. "Learn something new every day."
What did we learn from Friday's song-filled hangout? For one thing, both Madisen and Mama can finger-pick with precision. Each offered plucky little solos when the other strummed.
Regarding vocals, the song "Whole Lotta Problems" got to the heart of the Wards' dynamic with its question-and-answer lyrics. Truly fascinating to hear a son singing about his romantic worries and his mom cutting in after every line with her own world-weary observations.
Other songs simply benefited from their beautiful harmonies or the interesting, staccato ad libs he'd throw in. Madisen's shrieks and oddly placed ooh's worked well to contrast the sustained, often operatic notes of his mother.
The bouncy hand-clapper "Silent Movies" garnered the biggest audience response on Friday thanks to its single status and radio airplay. The song provided such a rush in the Kessler that someone from the back immediately yelled, "Play it again!" after it ended.
Madisen Ward then began to play what he called a "James Brown game" with the audience, making them cheer loudly with verbal cues. Without missing a beat, the Mama Bear motioned to her son: "Wannabe James Brown," she said.
And then, in one of the most gorgeous turns of the set, Ruth Ward sang lead on a slow and haunting cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams."
So went the Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear show -- ear-pleasing, familial and full of nice surprises.