It was a moment architected like a well-made art installation. Transcendent and perfect, it was a concert memory richer than any I could recall.
Ritter is a real performance artist, one whose thankful grace and deep insight make a crowd his own, one who refuses to stagnate. "Another New World" enthralled with an epic love narrative and dusky piano creep. The country jangle of "Harrisburg" touched my heart with its view of hell as a pair of "railroad tracks" and the devil as "the railway car."
Ritter's metaphors never faltered, but rather stacked up, each delicately crafted moment settling atop the next like perfectly-aligned masonry.
As expressed in "Change of Time," Ritter rarely lets change simply have its way with him. Rather, he constantly scales its castle walls, on his way hacking through the thorny brambles of experience to invent original verses that explode with meaning. Each song could exist as a poem, though Ritter adds melody and arrangements to climb further up the fortress of effect, as on "Galahad," performed acoustically, which found the audience in between verses giggling with delight at Ritter's ruined knight.
On "Lantern," Ritter searched the darker parts of himself and the world to find that he needs the light of a loved one: "Be the light in my lantern." Before "The Curse" it was as if Ritter hypnotized us to imagine Plush as the setting of the song, that we inhabited an Egyptian tomb with hieroglyphics and secret chambers. The gothic piano mingled with Ritter's silky voice as the audience sang along, "She asks, 'Are you cursed?' He says that I'm cured."
The Royal City Band supported Ritter with tight drum and bass work. Wearing fedoras and dress vests, they filed in during Ritter's acoustic opener, "Monster Ballads," each gradually adding an instrument at the top of every new verse. First came Sam Kassirer's piano, then Zack Hickman's bass and Liam Hurley's drums, and at last Austin Nevins' electric guitar. "Good Man" featured a testimonial lyrical mode and vibrant backing instrumentation. "Right Moves" ended with a nice piano tease at Dire Straits' "Walk of Life," while during the bridge "Harrisburg" morphed into the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun."
Opener Bhi Bhiman, a Sri Lankan-American folk artist who sounded like Seu Jorge with a touch of Roy Orbison, shined on "Take What I'm Given," a slick lullaby with undercurrent. "Time Heals" featured emotive, long vocal notes coupled with thrilling hammer-ons. Bhi Bhiman closed with the socially subversive single, "Guttersnipe," from 2012's "Bhiman." Sometimes also reminiscent of Woody Guthrie, Bhiman's music is complicated by a lightly caustic, cross-cultural element that adds a sharp edge to his ethereal sound.
Ritter's massive set roared at the beginning with the help of the Royal City Band on "Girl in the Water," and "New Lover," then struck thoughtful silence with the solo acoustic of "Snow is Gone," and bloomed again with "Wolves," and "Lillian, Egypt."
The crowd called Ritter back for a three-song encore. "The Temptation of Adam" proffered another great audience sing-along. Before "Kathleen," Ritter said, "This feels so good right now," and told the crowd to slow dance together.
After the moment of unity and quiet, Ritter sent us home with the Lou-Reed-meets-Dylan folk ramble of "To the Dogs or Whoever," which capped the evening with instrumental flourishes from the Royal City Band and a happy, till next time, goodbye from Ritter.
Josh Ritter Set List:
The Bad Actress
Naked as a Window
Girl in the War
A New Lover
In the Dark (Acoustic)
Snow Is Gone (Acoustic)
Another New World
Change of Time
The Temptation of Adam
To the Dogs or Whoever