Few things inspire me more than good music played passionately. The past two nights at the Somerville Theatre were filled with said music courtesy of Josh Ritter, who over the past few years has become one of my favorite artists. I first saw him out in western Massachusetts in a small auditorium on a double bill with Hem (and my thoughts on Hem can be summarized here
); I had gone out there to see Hem but left with a newfound appreciation for Josh. Since then I've started to learn some of his music and have made the effort to see his shows whenever he comes to town. So imagine my delight when I got front row seats for Thursday's show!
Josh's genuine excitement and glee at having the opportunity to perform his music for us was obvious; it's one of the reasons I enjoy watching his concerts so much. Yes, the music's great, but he also has so much fun playing it! And from a vantage point of just a few feet, I was enveloped by the sound of ten musicians. Josh brought his band (bass, drums, keys, guitar) and a full horn section much to my delight. He said it perfectly during his banter with the audience - "I've always thought it would be cool to have horns... and it is." His new album is a much more cacophonic (?) record than his previous ones have been, lots of horns and bells and whistles, but it doesn't take away from the songwriting and the listener can still hear the acoustic roots. He began the night alone, with the delicate "Moons," before launching full throttle into "Rumors," both from his latest. When he sang "my orchestra is gigantic, this thing could sink the Titanic," the others on stage responded with that much more intensity and played louder; it almost seemed like Josh was challenging them as he sang about the music never being loud enough. I wanted to be swallowed up by the sound.
Whatever bout of madness inspired him to write "To The Dogs Or Whoever" is a malady I'd pay dearly to get even a tenth of. The first song off his new album, it sets the tone for the listener and lets you know that Josh is one talented songwriter who might actually be as crazy as he is intelligent. The song seemed even faster and more driven in concert; he must have some set of pipes in order to pull that off as his third number and still have seventeen left. Over half of the show was songs from the new album, but he reached back to his previous The Animal Years
for the next four numbers. Settling in a bit, "Good Man" was excellent; as the horn players left the stage, Josh's playing became less raucous and more refined. This song is the shell of a sprawling epic and I love listening to it. He really dug in and his voice was grittier than on the album; I could hear a whole lot of Springsteen and perhaps even a little Tom Waits in there. "Wolves" was another delight - the chorus of "so long, so high" seemed to resonate in the theatre and in my mind long after the show had ended.
More musicians left the stage. Only Josh and his pianist remained, and the crowd was amazingly silent as they played the elegant "Here at the Right Time." Josh's guitar barely a whisper, a simple progression providing the backdrop for some of the best lyrics out there. Then he launched into "Monster Ballads," the first song from The Animal Years that I learned to play. As the song went on, his band slowly returned to the stage and completed the sound. I love this song, even if it took me a long time to understand what the hell the chorus meant. Full of imagery and stories of travels in Egypt. He provides only slightly more details in his songs than Mark Sandman did in his Morphine days; there's so much left to the imagination. I like that; he puts his trust and faith in the listeners.
With his band back in full swing, he launched into "Harrisburg" from The Golden Age Of Radio
, which I consider to be his best album (all of them are really masterpieces, but this one stands a little higher than the rest). He gave it a much harder feel, with the band coming in heavily on the first beat of the second measure of the verse... the fifth beat, and it coincides with the word "fifth" in the lyrics... okay, I'm a nerd, but deep down I think that was Josh's intention as well. He gave it the Springsteen treatment again - I know, I keep making that comparison, but it's accurate - and it was a gritty interpretation that really worked.
"The Temptation of Adam" has grown on me. When I first heard it on his solo acoustic tour last year, I wasn't a big fan, but the story and the lyrics have worked their way in. He played it alone, another demonstration of the way in which he started his career. "Naked as a Window" was a surprise - many people hadn't heard the bonus track - but then he played "Girl In the War" and nailed
it. I've never heard it with so much urgency and poignancy. There's a moment - "her eyes are like champagne" - that destroys me when the band crashes in on the second syllable of 'champagne.'
The horns returned for "Mind's Eye" and also for "Right Moves," which would probably be the single off this new album. Far too catchy to remain out of the mainstream for long. "Still Beating" is another delicate one that sounded excellent, and the full band brought "Empty Heart" to another level - everyone in the room stood for the song and the chorus "don't let me into this year with an empty heart" became a mantra. Of course, his closer was the sublime "Kathleen," which contains my favorite lyric in all of music: all the other girls here are stars, you are the northern lights
. He could've stopped there and it still would be better than most songs, but it became a hit a few years ago and is always a highlight of the shows. I thought the random free-form story he told in the middle of the song was a bit much, but then he finished the song and I have no idea what the story was about anymore.
He left the stage to thunderous applause, and came right back out (which is great; I hate it when artists take a long time to do that) to play "Lawrence, KS," which is one of my favorites. A clip can be found on Modern Acoustic
, a treasure of a site which I recently discovered. But then... calling on some reserve of energy, he played "The River" by Bruce Springsteen. He played it without any amplification to either his voice or his guitar, away from any microphones... and the audience (still standing) was captivated. I glanced back out at the audience - mouths were agape, some eyes wet. Anyone who wasn't a believer before was now converted. It was one of the most moving musical moments of my life. There are no words.
The horns joined for "Real Long Distance" and went to town; the song sounded that much larger after what had just transpired. It seemed like Josh relaxed a little after playing that previous number and was able to let loose a bit more. Finally, the opening act Old School Freight Train joined him for the last number "Next to the Last Romantic," and what a scene. It was a true hoedown - mandolin, violin, lots of guitar (geetar?) - and it was a great sendoff for the night. Everyone left happy.
There are very few artists out there whom I would compare to Tom Waits, or whom I would see two nights in a row, or who would spend three hours after every show talking with fans. Josh Ritter is that talented and also that giving. I had the opportunity to meet him once; we talked about music and traveling and the good stuff. I can't emphasize how much his music has influenced me - I think I'm in the right place at the right time to hear it and learn it, and I try to bring others into the fold when I can.