Both of these artists played in Tucson earlier this summer at the same event, the TapeOpCon music showcase. Ward was one of the bigger names to perform, while Kelley and her band were relative unknowns from Phoenix. However, both were highlights, and Kelley garnered an overwhelmingly positive response to her music from an audience that was largely made up of music-biz folks. Rumor has it that's how she ended up on this bill, which gave a deserving talent further exposure.
Backed by four veteran Phoenix musicians on guitar, upright bass, drums and keyboards, Kelley, who sings and gracefully strums a Telecaster, is armed with a smoky, forlorn voice that moves from hushed tones to a soar that gorgeously filled the theater. Kelley's songs are well-written, usually in a classic-sounding country vein, but sometimes veer into bluesy territory and occasionally stomp into grinding swamp-blues. Most are either heartbreaking ballads or mid-tempo songs that in lesser hands might come off as dirgelike. But the combination of the players' chemistry and chops with Kelley's haunting voice elevates them to a higher stratum.
Ward's set was a demonstration of just how much change his music has undergone in recent years. If his earlier shows were mostly folky affairs, aside from the occasional quiet moment, this set was pure rock. It makes sense that Howe Gelb was the one to first bring Ward national attention, because they share a certain trait: Both take mostly traditional musical forms and genres and filter them through their respectively skewed prisms, creating something that sounds simultaneously timeless and modern. And though Ward's band was composed partially of members of fellow Portland, Ore., residents Norfolk and Western (who also performed at TapeOpCon), Gelb was but one of many Tucsonans who sat in on songs during the show. We were also treated to cameos by Nick Luca on guitar, drummer Tommy Larkins (at one point, there were three drummers on stage), Craig Schumacher on harmonica, and Neko Case, who provided backing vocals on both a cover of Daniel Johnston's "To Go Home" (she appears on the track on Ward's latest album, Post-War) and "Helicopter," from 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent.
All the guest appearances provided the show a homey, feel-good vibe, and the sound, song selection and pacing were impeccable. It was about as close to perfection as anyone could ask for.