When most thesps try their hand at warbling, they usually treat live performances like they’re auditioning for the part of “Rock Star No. 1.” More often than not, they display an unconvincing false bravado, a series of poses and attitudes that never quite add up. But not Zooey Deschanel, the winsomely adorable actress who is the She of She & Him (the Him being singer-songwriter and indie-rock utilityman M. Ward). Her Monday-night perf at the Vista Theater was charmingly ingenuous — and she has both a voice and songwriting talent that mark this project as more than an actress on a lark.
Mixing songs from their recent CD, “Vol. 1” (Merge), with some well-chosen covers, Deschanel and Ward delivered a sweet, lightly effervescent set, as refreshing as a cool breeze on a summer’s night.
The songs moved easily from the swaying country of “Change Is Hard” to “I Was Made for You’s” airy girl-group romance, the beachy harmonies of “Sweet Darlin’ ” and “This Is Not a Test” and the retrospective folk of “Sentimental Heart.” Deschanel pulled each of them off with an almost modest grace. With Ward and Mike Coykendall strumming away and her rhythmic phrasing and habit of raising and falling off the notes, Deschanel often comes across as a Laurel Canyon Laura Nyro.
Still a neophyte performer, Deschanel, to her credit, doesn’t try to hide it with actorish business. She may be a little intimidated, but she’s also enjoying it immensely. At one point, checking her mic, she let fly with an “oooh-oh” — wide eyes grew even larger and she grinned when the audience echoed it back. She doesn’t quite know what to do with her hands, and grips her tambourine like a security blanket, but she is so sweetly unguarded it turns disarming.
Performing at this level, before a live audience, is a new experience; during their duet on Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” she looked directly at Ward for both direction and approval. And when Deschanel lost focus and started to reach for things to say, Ward stepped in to intro the next song. But she is professional enough not to be flustered by the sound problems that kept the mix from ever finding equilibrium — something that can throw even veteran performers.
Deschanel is not just a good singer for an actress, she’s a good singer, period.