Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, the Kansas City, Mo., family band that played World Cafe Live on Tuesday night, didn't spring out of nowhere. It might seem like it, thanks to the success of its 2015 debut album, Skeleton Crew. But back when Madisen, now 26, was a child, mother Ruth Ward used to be a standards-singing, guitar-playing folkie. Son learned the classics from mother - and he came up with his own mix of folk and soul, writing songs that twined her velvety vocals and his big, rough-edged voice as one.
Sitting stage-front with candles at their feet (and a shot of Bulleit whiskey at arm's length for Mama), the pair quickly showed their hand with "Mississippi" and the hillbilly folk of "Whole Lotta Problems."
She sang softly, but his voice - part Eddie Vedder, part Warren Zevon - grew louder and clearer with each verse. Ruth Ward was theatrical, her voice a stage whisper to his weird roar. On acoustic guitars, the son often strummed rhythm while the mother plucked out a subtle, ringing lead.
The skiffle groove of "Daisy Jane" and the hard-slapped pulse of "Alligator Fish N Chips" brought dancers into the aisles. The pair's diverse vocals repeatedly furnished highlights, grumbles, and yodels that came from nowhere, idiosyncratic twists at phrase ends, whether on the slow, stirring blues of "Modern Day Mystery," the breezy jazz of "Fight On," or the jaunty swing of "Yellow Taxi." This is what a rainy night in December should always sound like: warm and inviting.
Wyoming native Luke Bell opened for the Wards with an earnest, slightly ramshackle brand of country blues. Looking and sounding like a younger version of Don Williams, with crunched-up cowboy hat and gruff baritone, Bell played and sang self-penned, melodic songs about lonely girls from Tennessee ("Guitar Man") and bad-news bars in Nashville ("Orangutan") with a dry-prairie-to-green-heartland authenticity.