Josh Ritter is as gifted a storyteller as any other in today’s music scene, drawing from notes the likes of Springsteen, Cash, Dylan, and Tom Petty to create pictures of today’s America. If you’re under 45 and liberal, it’s likely you’ve felt frustrated by the lack of opportunity, by the creeping religious hypocrisy that poisons the political landscape, and the dreadful knowledge that the American dream was stolen from you before you and your peers could even walk. Ritter has his pulse on the angst and struggles of his generation, tackling themes of loneliness, disappointment, and isolation with humor and curiosity, always driving you forward to the next adventure.
Ritter’s music edges on rock and twangy folk, but his stage presence was bigger, more buoyant, more joyful than any folk show I’ve seen. He started his show at the Fillmore last night under a stark spotlight, alone on stage with his acoustic guitar, singing the ominous, minor key melody about vast longing and transience, as American gothic, lonely, and dark as anything Johnny Cash ever recorded. He crooned to us, skating effortlessly over the high notes, his eyes closed.
Ritter isn’t a chatty performer, but he’s hugely effusive at pouring huge amounts energy into bouncing his way rhythmically through the songs, eyes closed, and showing a huge grin between the verses. He looks less like he’s performing than he is feeling, living through these stories while he sings them, and waiting with anticipation for the next one. The Fillmore isn’t a small venue, but with him on stage, it feels intimate and connective.
The backup band is a bit part of what works about Ritter’s performance. Without stealing the spotlight, they’re all top notch musicians putting high energy in when they’re soloing, and melting into the background when the spotlight is on Josh. It’s the bassist, Zack Hickman, who’s been with him the longest, and the chemistry shows.
There wasn’t a bad moment coming from the stage, but the high points were exceptional. When Ritter announced his upcoming album of cowboy songs he’d authored, and that his collaborator would be joining him on stage, we clapped. When the collaborator turned out to be the legendary Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, the sense of awe was palpable. Living legends are in shorter supply of late, and a performance by one as spry and gifted as Weir was a welcome gift, and we, in the audience, rejoiced.
One of my few complaints was his rendition of “Getting Ready to Get Down”, a song about a young woman’s defiance of her religious upbringing, and full of clever hooks and couplets, but he seemed to lose the crowd a little in a moment that should have shone. He introduced it saying, “I barely get to take a breath through this one,” and sang so fast I could barely make out the lyrics. It’s a song with a rock beat and Dylan-influenced infectious melody, and conveys a joyful message that I wish I could have heard better in the live version:
And give your love freely to whoever that you please
Don’t let nobody tell you about the who you oughta be
And when you get damned in the popular opinion
It’s just another damn of the damns you’re not givin’
He closed the show with some of his biggest hits, and I am not ashamed to tell you that I, along with so many others, was fist pumping through his finale, “To the Dogs or Whoever”, an anthem about loneliness, bringing me so much connection, because this, for me, is the purpose of great music such as this:
Oh bring me the love that can sweeten a sword
A boat that can love the rocks or the shore
The love of the iceberg reaching out for a wreck
Can you love me like the crosses love the nape of the neck?
- Birds of the Meadow
- Young Moses
- Am I Making All the Right Moves
- Here at the Right Time
- A Certain Light
- Seeing Me Round
- Where the Night Goes
- The Stone
- Snow is Gone
- Change of Time
- unpublished material (with Bob Weir)
- unpublished material (with Bob Weir)
- Getting Ready to Get Down
- The Temptations of Adam
- To the Dogs or Whover