Photos: Tess O'Connor
Two hometown heroines graced Los Angeles' El Rey Theatre last Thursday, Dec. 6, after both had taken a significant amount of time away from local stages. Their absence doesn't mean their careers have been quiet - quite the contrary: Valley Queen has spent the past few months touring (notably with Social Distortion and Justin Townes Earle) and headliner Lauren Ruth Ward has been hard at work on her sophomore full-length among other projects. This night, also supported by Rett Madison, was an overdue return to the limelight.
The will call line was at its longest just before Valley Queen took the stage. Everyone arrived just in time to watch as the energy of the room lifted alongside the band's Americana stylings. They released an album in July named after a type of star and their show felt like being launched into space: weightless and unafraid. Natalie Carol helms the band, and she carried the performance that night with unflinching vocal delivery. Under the lights, her cheekbones cast harsh shadows on her face, and yet there was no mistaking her glee. She remarked that when they can play in LA, they are thankful to share the experience with friends and fans alike.
Photo: Alan Krespan
It feels as though Lauren Ruth Ward released her debut album, Well, Hell, a few lifetimes ago. Apparently, it only came out in February of this year, after being delayed at the behest of the label who had only just signed her. When it finally did launch, the Baltimore-bred artist had just wrapped an ambitious residency at the Echo surrounded by dozens of other artists and friends. Then, her live dates seemed to dry up. An already-announced date at the Troubadour was slated for a few weeks after the album drop, but otherwise, silence. She and her expanded band were back in full form at the El Rey.
Ward is not a minimalist. I counted ten people onstage at once, including their drummer; a violinist; a quartet of local background vocalists including Emma Cole, TwoLips, and Rett Madison; and three guitarists including Dean Passarella and bassist Liv Slingerland, who both have their own solo projects. The night's set design even included mushroom-capped props, which photographer and close friend of the band, Tess O'Connor, was tasked with explaining. They led with Well, Hell's crooning opener, "Staff Only," which is always looking for a fight. What ensued was not so much violence as it was agitated excitement.
For a room that hadn't quite sold out, it sure sounded like it. Fans shouted along with every word to the recent record, which was played nearly in full. When not holding her guitar, Ward pantomimed furiously along with her lyrics, wagging her hand as she sang about adversity ("Well, Hell") and grabbing her crotch to the beat like MJ ("Sideways"). Eventually, she brought out her fiancée LP to join on "Sheet Stains," a song unquestionably written about their relationship, given the latter songwriter's many frequent tours overseas. Then, to keep fans on their feet, Ward debuted several new songs that maintain the same aggressive grit of her last record.
Contractually, Ward was not allowed to advertise any performances in Los Angeles for most of the year. Always the rebel, she worked around it by not announcing her name on the bill, appearing with an acoustic guitar ahead of a Slugs residency date and at a community-driven event at Stories bookstore, to name a few. Her perseverance is admirable, even if it did exacerbate a node on her vocal cords during the summer. Now, back in full health, Lauren Ruth Ward announced that she has separated from her label, and that there are many surprises in store for fans, free from contractual obligation.
Revisit one of our earliest "All Eyes On" performances with the unmistakable Lauren Ruth Ward: