By Ramon Ramirez
Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 17, 2013
This has to be the most earnest celebrity music vanity project of the last 20 years.
Hollywood leading lady Zooey Deschanel and six-string ruffian hero M. Ward’s indie folk side project, She & Him, presided over a 29-song set Sunday at ACL Live and it was mostly delightful. There was a six-piece backing band, a harmonious opening set by The Secret Sisters that soothed with familiar Patsy Cline and Bill Monroe covers, and a pair of ejections.
She’s a sparkplug balladeer with an ear for melody, but Deschanel is most known for her acting. This only matters because a small but loud minority of celebrity oglers barked petulant interruptions throughout the concert, and this doesn’t happen if she isn’t the headliner of a network television situation comedy. Deschanel responded with grace but diminishing levels of patience. The first "Zooey I love you!" cat call was met with a sardonic, playfully indignant "boys." The second begat "I love all of you." The third was Deschanel trying to change the subject, "How was everybody’s day? Are any of you related to Willie Nelson?" The interruptive chants continued a few more times, and two particularly drunk patrons in my general admission vicinity were escorted out of the show.
Coming out to "I Was Made For You" from 2008’s Volume One—a well-paced and enduring release that Paste Magazine crowned Album of the Year—M. Ward played sideman in a white button down shirt and dark denim as Deschanel, in a navy blue summer dress and tambourine combo, led sing-alongs. Two petite blonde backup singers mimicked Deschanel’s dress code and jumped in place during the happy parts like friendly ghosts. The other three multi-instrumentalist sidekicks kept the chains moving, rotating instruments as often as the songs in the set changed: bass, lap steel, piano, red keyboard, violin, accordion, guitars. The drummer wore a fedora.
During the performance, Deschanel hammered on the keys like a Peanuts character, hand clapped, and played the ukulele. At their least vital, She & Him are glorified coffee mongers with toothache sweet lyrics like "You could’ve been my four-leaf clover" (from "I Could’ve Been Your Girl"). When it was just she and him onstage with an acoustic guitar, proceedings stalled. This was partly because the pros playing along were elite, especially veteran Portland musician Mike Coykendall, who stole the show during "I Thought I Saw Your Face" with a thunderous whistling solo.
Yet what made Sunday’s set pop were the wistful, lost love lyrics that even stung the guy in the white New Balance sneakers and turquoise world’s greatest dad shirt. For her sunny nature, Deschanel’s songwriting is best served when she strays from the lost doll act of songs like "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" and channels her character from "Elf" — quick-witted and over it. She can cut deep: "I’m not talking to you anymore," "It’s not you who I sing for so don’t sit next to me," "we told the story of love in our hearts," "remember last summer when we had the chance," "that won’t stop me crying over you."
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the set’s fourth number, "Baby" from May’s "Volume 3" that audience members were treated to Ward’s signature, croaky throated, folk howl. Ward is a leading Monster of Folk yet his decade plus body of work was left on the shelf. Three covers could have been selections from "Post-War" instead—Smokey Robinson’s "You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me," Frank Perkins’ "Stars Fell on Alabama," and a hard living encore rendition of "Roll Over Beethoven." Charming, sure, but this isn’t Scarlett Johansson — Deschanel has proven to be a more than worthy songwriter capable of carrying the night.