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Sunny Pop with She & Him
We took a break from Summerfest and enjoyed the pleasant pop of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward

Photo by CJ Foeckler

It’s ironic that an adored actress and a critically acclaimed musician would choose to join forces under the anonymity of the name She & Him, but after seeing Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward and Co. perform Friday night at The Riverside, it was clear that the two have willingly sacrificed their respective “identities” in order to bear forth the pop music handed down to them from a long tradition.

So, not surprisingly, the music – all sunny pop and delicate serenades – was spot-on, but the performance lacked anything really definite to fixate on. Despite her bubbly TV personality, Deschanel seemed unwilling to fill the role of front-woman, shrinking from the (literal) spotlight while the songs she had penned exploded joyously around her. She sang beautifully and acted as the de facto leader, engaging the audience with the typical banter, but didn’t seem to have much fun doing it. She could have used more support from M. Ward (aka “Him”), who, content to hang back and let Deschanel take the lead, nonetheless quietly stole the show with a voice that seemed to emanate from a faded past, as if a Steinbeck novel had cracked open and started to sing.

The duo was joined by a full band that rotated between bass, guitar, accordion, pedal steel and piano, as well as backup vocals from the Chapin sisters, who opened the show with a set of beautiful country ballads. She & Him began with the bright girl-pop number “I Was Made For You” from Volume One before playing a few from the new third installment, including single “Never Wanted Your Love” and the stretched out disco-pop of “Together.” The lights dimmed and Deschanel switched to piano for a couple smoky, intimate waltzes, “Take It Back” and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.” Then the band left the stage, leaving Ward and Deschanel to serenade with a cover of Smoky Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” and the jazz standard “Stars Fell On Alabama,” stunning against a backdrop of a starry sky. These quieter numbers really showed off Deschanel’s voice, which, like Ward’s, has the built-in graininess of an old record.  Later, the group’s stage debut of “Something’s Haunting You” from Volume 3 went off without a hitch, and they even dipped into some M. Ward solo material, playing the bobbing rocker “Magic Trick” from his album Post-War. After closing with a sing-along version to “In The Sun,” the band returned with an encore of “Sweet Darlin,’” for which Deschanel and Ward shared a duet on the piano bench.

Overall, it was a set of pleasant, well-executed pop music, and the audience loved it. After spending last night amid the crowds and rain and alcohol of Summerfest, She & Him was, personally, a nice retreat ­– the rare chance to sit back and just look and listen. If you were able to forget whatever expectations you had for the persona of Deschanel and just enjoy her music, it was wonderful. And that’s exactly how She & Him wanted it to be.

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