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With the exceptions of a couple of appropriate jags and ledges, the musical mountain scaled by Diane Ward is almost perfectly vertical. Despite her lithe blond beauty, she was a hard-hitting drummer who sometimes shattered sticks until, damn near twenty years ago, she stepped from behind the kit to front a band called Bootleg, which evolved into the Wait. Though formative, a few releases and numerous live shows displayed solid rock songwriting lifted high by the intensely smoldering, sometimes explosive vocals of the chick singer.
In the early Nineties, Ward put together Voidville, a dynamic, volume-eleven regional supergroup. In 1995 she partnered with guitar god Jack Shawde and released the distinctly non-Voidvillean album Mirror. As coproducer and guitarist (they often perform as a duo as well as with rhythm sections as a full band), Shawde has been the constant during the past decade, during which Ward also scored with Move (1999), released a limited-edition four-song acoustic cassette called The Bathroom Tape, and contributed "Awkward Girl" to the compilation 18 Great Songs from SlipstreamPresents.com. She wrote "The Gift" as a sort of "We Are the World" for children with HIV or AIDS; it was performed by some 50 area musicians for a recording by producer Rat Bastard and turned into a first-rate video by filmmaker Alex Moreno. Her work has been licensed for television and film and has received plenty of national radio play.
Ward reached the clouds, possibly the peak, with 2003's masterwork The Great Impossible, an album that is, um, impossibly great. And had the world ended right then, Saint Peter would have handed Ward a guitar at the Pearly Gates and asked her to play a few tunes for Heaven. Instead the world changed.
Five years ago Ward and her other partner, semiretired guitarist Rose Gargiulo, launched a media-graphics company called All About Eve in downtown Hollywood, and it seemed she might slow down her musical pursuits. Instead, with her new album Wonderlight, Ward has simply slowed down her music. Ethereal, gauzy, and random, the eleven-track CD features the expected top-shelf production values and brilliant songwriting. It's full of diversity, it's finely crafted, it's pleasantly pleasurable, but Wonderlight doesn't rock no drumsticks were shattered here.
Critic Bob Weinberg wrote that the album's "underlying aesthetic," like its cover photo of Ward wearing a tie-dyed shirt with "Peace" across the front, is "grunge-meets-flower-child." Maybe. Except where's the grunge?
It's on the stage. An intelligently subtle lyricist, Ward has never been afraid to wear her emotions on her T-shirts and spill her personal guts in her evocative songs. Wonderlight clearly shines its thematic concerns on a world gone fucknuts. America is involved in three wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, and "on terror"). A hurricane washed away a major American city and revealed a foundation of poverty and disenfranchisement where citizens remain trapped in second-class existences. And locally Ward has spent a lifetime watching South Florida turn into some sort of larger-than-life game of Monopoly gone haywire.
Those who seek their solace in rock and roll get a lullaby and a tranquilizer from Wonderlight, and maybe that's best; maybe we should remain calm until the nightmares end. "To me, music is so very personal," Ward says. "A powerful lover and friend. I, too, seek solace in it. Seems no matter what is happening on the outside, it intuitively finds a way into your heart, wraps the offering around you like a blanket, and emotionally feeds exactly what you need at the time. My creative process of writing music, lyrics, and developing production all stem from the emotional relationship that I have with music. My goal is to be moved. And to move. If a listener walks away feeling anything, good or bad, but feeling something, I did my job."
With her September 9 CD-release concert at Tobacco Road, solace seekers who prefer anger as an energy source got a wake-up call you could hear from the bottom of the valley. Backed by an all-star band Shawde, bassist Debbie Duke, drummer Howard Goldberg, and Matthew Sabatella on keyboards (an instrument not used in Ward-fronted groups previously) the singer erased any consideration that, near midlife, crises would be dealt with soporifically. She didn't medicate the audience; she beat the hell out of it to the point it required medication. She broke every stick in the joint and, remarkably, did so with panache and even humor slipped in at appropriate moments.
Diane Ward hasn't changed. She simply chose to make a different sort of album this time out. "I've always let the song determine the general production or presentation," she says. "Because we recorded the overdubs ourselves at Jack's studio using Pro Tools, it afforded us time to be able to play in the production. We were able to explore ideas at length, which ultimately gave the musical presentation a more thoughtful outcome."
The most obvious example of her passionate displeasure with the new world disorder is a song called "Messed Up," which she co-wrote with Jim Baumann and Jonelle Raspa: "I can't stop the war, I can't stop thinking about the ruin/Watch the world fall down over and over again ... the sky is on fire ... can I sit this one out?" This song should be played full blast 24 hours per day in the Oval Office. Oddly, though, on the album, "Messed Up" is drumless, Ward's angelic vocals backed by keyboards, djembe, guitars, upright bass, and, sure enough, programming.
In the upstairs cabaret of Tobacco Road, the song burned so hot that effigies of President Bush and his neoconspiracy cohorts spontaneously combusted, at least in our dreams. When that song ended, sound engineer Cosmo Vinyl gasped, "What a great band!" with the same tone he might have said, "The war in Iraq just ended!"
At another point in the two-set concert, the soundman used the P.A. to warn the wall-to-wall crowd that "There's no smoking up here. Uh, that doesn't apply to the band." Ward picked up on the joke: "Boy have things changed. This place is called Tobacco Road."
Yet there was a paradox much more significant than the tobacco-free policy. Wonderlight's concerns include the local as well as the global, and concertgoers received a major dose of the former in concrete terms. Miami's oldest bar, virtually unchanged in its blue-collar earthiness during the past quarter-century, now has valet parking (four dollars) on weekends.
For years gloomy forecasts of gentrification have haunted Roadsters and other fans of the grungy little neighborhood along the southern bank of the Miami River. The forecasts were accurate.
The pricey valet parking a measure not necessary even back when the Miami Heat played at the Miami Arena and Metromover riders would park at the Road during games prevents abuse by clientele of a nearby velvet-rope club and area restaurants; street parking, most of it a dollar per hour until midnight, is difficult to come by within five or six blocks of the Road by 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday. The empty lot directly across South Miami Avenue from the front door of the Road has been blueprinted for what would be the tallest building in South Florida.
Gentrification and the plagues besetting the rest of the planet are both confronted and set aside when Debbie Duke moves from upright to electric bass and turns butterflies into bumblebees, when Howard Goldberg shows that drums can work well as an instrument of finesse, when Shawde and Ward shift into an acoustic guitar swordfight with no survivors when the Diane Ward Band is burning down the house.
Ward's media-graphics business recently had to move a few addresses down Hollywood Boulevard because of complexities involving the lease (including a huge raise in rent), and on the stage she speaks of a passing notion of leaving her native South Florida and how that thought inspired the song "This Love Is Hard." There's a lyric in it that goes, "Someday my heart might reach out to greet you/But for now I'm fine just being here" an apt way to describe the gritty, urgent rock and roll Ward delivers in concert. Wonderlight might be a pleasure, but her live shows can be a spiritual experience. They are always delivered from the mountaintop.