It’s a feat, turning a sea of people in Central Park into a crowd of bobbleheads, but that’s exactly what M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel—aka She & Him—accomplished on the first night of their two-show run at Central Park’s Summerstage on Saturday night.
Deschanel’s too-twee-for-words adorableness could’ve gotten to them, or her enthusiasm for whacking the hell out of her tambourine, or the facial expressions exchanged between her and Ward over the course of the 90-minute set. The covers of the evening could’ve done the crowd in—especially their exceptional take on “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” which succeeded in quieting the park between the East and West sides of Manhattan entirely—or the choruses of catalog favorites “Magic Trick” and “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” might’ve held their interest in New York City’s searing heat. Whatever it was, She & Him fans came out in droves to watch the New Girl star try on a modern day update on a June Carter Cash vibe, and they weren’t disappointed—but that doesn’t mean that there was any substance to the performance beyond the echoing chords of the excellent band and Ward’s guitar.
The deal is you can’t have the highest expectations at a She & Him show beyond Deschanel being adorable and arriving on the right side of a note every once in awhile. Despite Ward’s songwriting prowess and superlative accomplishments behind him as a performer and a producer, Deschanel brings the crossover appeal of the vintage vibe duo, and it’s difficult to see why beyond the obvious, shallow qualities. Is her voice pretty? Sure. Could she afford to take a voice lesson or two? Absolutely. Does it matter? Not in the slightest. There were a few moments where Deschanel’s voice bottomed out in the lower recesses of her vocal register, leaving the lyrics an unwieldy mess for her to murk through, and her diction (or lack thereof) made it absolutely impossible to decipher what she was saying if you were standing by the back bleachers of the space. It’s charming, this perfectly imperfect thing she’s got going on, but it’s hardly good or consistent, and even though production had kindly asked the crowd to stow their cellphones for the entirety of the performance, plenty of people were reaching into their pockets and stealing glances at the faces of their iPhones to try to glean if the encore would be coming up anytime soon. (It did—and included a rousing rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” that killed, for the second encore—but two jaunts back onstage after the closer felt hardly necessary.)
Maybe it’s just a matter of shifting presumptions and accepting She & Him for what it is: a playful romp that banks on nostalgic, familiar songwriting tropes, attractive showmanship and witty banter—and nothing more beyond that. Still, it’s hard to swallow a series of bad notes and woozy transitions when the band behind you is first-rate, and its the not-so-little things that keep She & Him from achieving high marks when it comes to the big picture of their photogenic act when it’s live and in the flesh.