ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MARCH 20, 1997
By Steve Newton
Most guitarists for hire would jump at the opportunity to join a band featuring Bob Dylan’s son as singer-songwriter; name recognition alone would give that group an instant edge in the competitive rock ’n’ roll game.
When Jakob Dylan was on the lookout for a new guitarist for his band the Wallflowers, a friend of journeyman guitar-slinger Michael Ward mentioned Ward’s name to producer T-Bone Burnett, who was set to helm the band’s sophomore release, Bringing Down the Horse.
Burnett was already aware of Ward through the latter’s work on John Hiatt’s Perfectly Good Guitar CD, and Dylan himself had heard of the guitarist thanks to his time in a band called School of Fish. But when the lead guitar position in the Wallflowers was offered to him, Ward passed it up.
Fortunately for him, sometimes you get two shots at a good thing.
“When they called me up I had just gotten off the road with John Hiatt,” recalls Ward, on the line from Detroit, “and I wasn’t really into goin’ and doin’ another thing right away. So I kinda turned it down. And then a few weeks later I was kickin’ myself, goin’ ‘Oh, that was pretty stupid,’ and then they called me back, which was pretty miraculous. So I went down and played on the record, and then it just kinda worked out from there.”
“Worked out” is right. The Wallflowers are one of the most popular bands around, thanks to the success of Bringing Down the Horse, which would still be Number 1 on the Georgia Straight Top 50 if not for the new release by some band called U2. (“Those bastards!” quips Ward when notified of the Wallflowers CD’s recent toppling by Bono and the boys.)
After spending a year and a half with Hiatt, recording a live album as well as Perfectly Good Guitar with the venerable tunesmith, Ward joined the Wallflowers in time to record Horse, as did bassist Greg Richling. (Drummer Mario Calire became a full-fledged member after the album was finished.)
Considering the drastic personnel shift that was made after the Wallflowers’ self-titled debut on Virgin failed to cause much of a stir—with everyone but Dylan and keyboardist Rami Jaffee hitting the road—it would seem as though Dylan took it upon himself to clean house, but good.
“Corporate downsizing,” says Ward with a chuckle. “Some guys left and some guys were asked to leave, but it was about a four-year gap between the two albums, and just a whole bunch of stuff goin’ on. Things didn’t work out with Virgin, so they sort of asked to be let go, and Virgin was happy to let ’em go. The band was just takin’ a while to get certain things going.”
When asked what he thinks makes the Wallflowers’ second CD so different from the first, Ward points to the facts that the band spent more time on it, that its holdover members were a few years older and wiser, and that they were maybe “a little bit directionless” on the debut.
But does the major restructuring of the Wallflowers’ lineup point to frontman Dylan being a tyrant of sorts? In other words, is there some tabloid-style dirt that can be dug up on the guy?
“He’s such a control freak,” says Ward, playing along, “he’s probably listening to us right now. But no, it’s really cool. I have a lot of room to do whatever I like, and there’s a lot of mutual musical respect amongst everyone in the band. Everyone’s creative in their own right, so it’s a good chemistry all around.”
That winning chemistry is easily discerned on the CD’s opening track, “One Headlight”, a tune that’s been dominating North American rock-radio airwaves of late and will surely be a well-received highlight of the band’s sold-out show at the Rage on Tuesday (March 25). Ward reports that he had no clue “One Headlight” would become such a massive hit.
“To me, I thought [the debut single] ‘6th Avenue Heartache’ was a lot more obvious choice,” he says. “And that’s another thing—when you have a song that just screams ‘I’m the first single!’, a lot of times the follow-up can be a real pain in the butt. Personally, I like ‘One Headlight’ better as a song, maybe because it’s a little less obvious of a single. But we were all pleasantly surprised [by its popularity].”
Along with Dylan’s stark, imagistic lyrics and casually compelling delivery, Ward’s tasty guitar-playing provides much of the attraction of “One Headlight”. He handles a Dobro nicely on that tune, and also sprinkles it with choice slide-guitar bits.
But while the bald-headed picker’s style is decidedly down-home and rootsy, it’s not as though he was nurtured by a steady diet of Delta blues.
“When I started I was more influenced by the hard-rock school,” says the Minneapolis native, “like from Ace Frehley to Eddie Van Halen—that’s why I got into it. And then later on I discovered everything from the Beatles to more jazz guys. I guess nowadays it’s things like Sonic Youth to Dinosaur Jr., the Jesus Lizard to Flaming Lips—everyone who just kinda turns it up and makes a nice racket, you know.”
One fabulously well-known musician who hasn’t had an influence on Ward is Dylan’s dad, Big Bob himself. Barely out of his 20s, Ward was born a little too late to be weaned on Blood on the Tracks.
“I really wasn’t that big of a fan, to be honest. I mean, I knew of the legacy and all that, but it was just slightly before my time. Obviously, his stuff is there to go and discover if you want to, and I’ve done some secret listening since joining the band just to get a little historical perspective on things.”
Ward admits that, as far as the initial creation of the Wallflowers’ songs goes, Jakob Dylan is definitely the man with the plan. But the burgeoning singer-songwriter isn’t above letting his bandmates get their creative licks in as well.
“Jakob and I have been working on a few things together lately,” he says. “He’ll bring the rough framework of a song—usually he’s got a good idea of the basic music and the words and whatnot—and we’ll start chippin’ in our stuff and twisting and turnin’ it.”
Although the Wallflowers certainly sound like a cohesive, working unit on Bringing Down the Horse—as opposed to just a solo artist and some backing musicians—there’s no denying that Dylan’s genealogy, as much as his talent, swings the spotlight his way.
So is it tough being in a band where one member draws most of the attention, whether he wants it or not?
“Well, that’s the key,” says Ward. “I suppose sometimes it can rear its ugly head in certain ways, but a lotta the time you just go, ‘Well, I’m glad it’s not me,’ and you run off and get a sandwich and the other guy gets stuck with all the burdens.”