Oregon-bred ZZ Ward was raised on her daddy’s self-written, self-performed back-porch blues, and it’s in combination with her love of the hip-hop of Freddie Gibbs and Wiz Khalifa that she has refined her own unique sound which combines the two. The result, as performed by Ward and her three-piece backing band, is a sound as toe-tappingly good as it is refreshing, in the vein of Alicia Keys and, more recently, Jessie J, but with a harder, grittier edge and tone. On tour supporting Allen Stone, Ward and her backing band performed a stellar set at King Tuts Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow this past Tuesday 3rd.
Playing a number of original songs, both unreleased and on her EP Eleven Roses, Ward has an incredibly strong and sultry voice, ideal for spinning tales of the blues to heavy beats and deep bass. It’s a bold and yet gently seductive sound, carried along by the tinge of a Northwest accent which lends Ward a degree of authenticity and soul.
The hip-hop edge bleeds through on tracks like Til The Casket Drops, bass guitar punching through the air over Ward’s accompanying acoustic fretwork and thumping kickdrums. But it’s not explicit. Instead, it gives the soulful oohs and aahs a dirty, moody edge that comes off as an extra layer of maturity. That the two genres meet in the middle so well is a credit to Ward’s songwriting and the arrangement of her band.
That said, Ward’s heart still lies in the blues, and Last Love Song was a bleeding-heart reprise of a nuclear family marriage that would never be - “No more white picket fences…no more ‘you’re the only one’”. With no backing save for her own guitar, Ward could well have been the only person in the room - her voice is startling but without premise, enveloped in honesty and that twinge of an accent. Before and after the song, Ward gently requested some adjustment to her own vocal levels, a moment which happened on a couple of occasions - as well as being a bold singer, she indicates she is a pefectionist when it comes to the art of her performance.
But Ward is also cheeky and can have fun as much as she can indulge her sorrows, and the risque Charlie Ain’t Home gave her a chance to wiggle a little on stage, waving her arms and her hands as she sang to her nameless lover to “lay her down on sheets of cotton” whilst her partner was away. The song’s high-pitched reprises following the chorus allowed her to flaunt her impressive vocal range, and the similarly jaunty Thank God For Beer, a cheeky thank you note to alcohol for making bar hook-ups easy, brought the hip-hope vibe back to the forefront.
Between her impressive vocal range, cross-genre influence and recognisable voice, Ward is a talented and dynamic performer, capable of paying good tribute to the artists she admires at both ends of the musical spectrum. Criminal is a reggae-tinted soul trip combining hip-hop-esque layered drums with graceful, swooping choruses, rounding off the evening on a note sat comfortably somewhere between both focal points of influence. Both sweet and bitter, high and low, brooding and soulful, ZZ Ward is an act to watch, as her distinctive style matures - for that night, at King Tuts, the voice of a deceitful angel turned blues on its head.