For the second time in less than a year, Ruth Ward and her son Madisen performed at the Midland theater but under much different circumstances.
In early October, the duo known as Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear opened for blues legend B.B. King. It would be King’s last show in Kansas City and one of his final shows ever. He fell ill two days later and died in May.
Thursday night, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear headlined a show at the Midland, drawing a crowd of about 1,500, significantly more than attended their previous Midland show, which was a coming-out party for the duo. Thursday’s show felt more like a coronation.
Since that Midland show last year, the two have performed around the U.S. and in Europe, made an appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman” and released “Skeleton Crew,” their debut album. They have added a rhythm section: Tom Hudson on drums and Brent Kastler on bass. Thursday night, they added a cellist, Larissa Maestro.
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All the road work has added some polish, finesse and heft to their live shows. Their harmonies sounded crisper, their guitar play more adventurous and their energy and personalities felt more at-ease and vibrant.
Thursday, as the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” played on the public address system, they took the stage as a duo and performed “Live by the Water,” the opening track on “Skeleton Crew.” After “Whole Lotta Problems,” a curtain behind them rose, unveiling the rest of the band, and they proceeded through more “Skeleton” songs and a few covers.
The crowd gave them plenty of love, although in the back of the room, by the bar, attentions wandered and lots of conversations broke out, especially during down-tempo ballads like “Undertaker and Juniper.” Up front, however, there was lots of singing along and swaying and dancing. The Midland has solid acoustics, but the sound was a bit askew this evening (the kick drum was extra heavy on a few songs, and the cello was hard to discern on others).
The highlights: “Silent Movies,” the album’s first single, which prompted a rousing sing-along; a re-arranged cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which deserves a recording of its own; the stunning version of “Down in Mississippi,” a stellar “Skeleton” track that included some lovely cello lines from Maestro; and Ruth Ward’s earnest version of “Stand by Me,” which she dedicated to her husband and Madisen’s father, Kenneth Ward.
They closed with “Yellow Taxi,” another jaunty country/folk ditty embroidered with some playful guitar work and lacquered with tight harmonies. The crowd sang along boisterously, like it had known the song for years, giving a warm hometown embrace to a duo that, in less than a year, has left similar impressions around the globe.