The lights dimmed nearly to the point of darkness, Madisen Ward leaned back and let the words tear out of him.
“Way down in Mississippi/Way down where the leaves won’t grow,” he sang, holding his acoustic guitar tight, “All the laws made by Jim Crow/Way down in Mississippi.”
His mother and musical collaborator, Ruth Ward (better known in this context as Mama Bear), took the next verse: “Did you feel that heat today/Sores are on my feet today/Sour’s not as sweet today/Way down in Mississippi.”
The riveting, slow motion call-and-response of Down in Mississippi, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear’s first song of the evening at the Kessler Theater Friday, set the tone for what was to come: a respectful exchange of ideas between generations, a sensation of something intangible being passed between mother and child, and an immersion in the melting pot flavors of American folk music.
The mother-son duo — the burly-voiced Madisen is 26, and the gently quavering Ruth is 63 — hails from Kansas City, Mo., and has been steadily building a fan base since breaking out at this year’s South by Southwest.
The pair released their debut, Skeleton Crew, earlier this year, and Friday, made their official Dallas debut before an adoring, often reverentially silent audience (albeit one that, when prodded by Madisen Ward, could let loose a mighty yell).
Over the course of about 75 minutes, the Wards, backed occasionally by a drummer and bassist, worked through most of Crew, touching on its more sprightly tunes (Daisy Jane; hit single Silent Movies) and its bleaker selections (Dead Daffodils; Undertaker and Juniper).
The blend of the Wards’ voices remains singularly intoxicating. The younger Ward fairly vibrates with enthusiasm, his robust tenor leaping and formidable, while the elder Ward, capable of her own startling moments, serves to create a mellifluous blend with her son.
Their unique chemistry was evident in the cover songs filling out the set: Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams was given a molasses-folk makeover, while Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, stripped of its soulful backbeat, nevertheless swung mightily.
As it began, so it was throughout: an intimate, arresting showcase by a pair of engaging musicians, who share a bond deeper than merely being bandmates.
Sincerity can be a tough sell in the modern, irony-addicted age, but Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear are just that: a genuine tonic for our weary, distracted times.