I finally saw Josh in concert last night at the Tarrytown Music Hall (first time for both the performer and the venue, for me). I was shocked to discover that I was totally unprepared for his show. It's one thing to come to a show without huge expectations and then be amazed at a great performance, as I was by Carrie Rodriguez last summer. One hopes for that to happen every now and then. It's quite another thing to come with your expectations already high and see a concert very different from what you expected that just blows you away. That's what happened last night.
Josh Ritter's genial soft rock is a wolf in sheep's clothing (yes, that includes his song Wolves). I've been hearing it steadily on WFUV for years without it making a huge impression on me. Good, melodic, mid-tempo stuff with more elaborate lyrics than average. More recently I've discovered his softer, ballad side through his latest album, So Runs the World Away. Careful listening disclosed a first-rate singer-songwriter of the hyperliterate, story-telling variety (like you-know-who). They sell it in Starbucks, for Pete's sake. Little did I know...
From the moment he sprinted onstage, grinning ear to ear under a cloud of curly hair and bouncing on both feet repeatedly like a demented jack-in-the-box, it was pretty obvious that Josh Ritter was not going to deliver an evening of genial soft rock and hyperliterate ballads. Sparked by his own incredible energy (possibly the most strenuous musical performance I have ever witnessed), his crack 4-piece backing band inflated his mid-tempo hits into rock anthems for the next 2 hours. It was hard to believe that they were the same songs. It was also hard to stay in your seat, and many of us didn't; the ancient Music Hall has side aisles that became impromptu dance floors.
There was very little banter between numbers, and in fact Josh isn't very good at it, which is curious for such a literary guy who has a novel about to be released, but nevermind; everybody just wanted more music anyway. And they got it, with sequences of songs played 2 or 3 together medley-style, building to incredible climaxes. The ballads showed up too, singly in between the medleys and in a "non-intermission" when Josh played several of them solo with only his acoustic guitar for backing while the rest of the band took a break. But the ballads were never the stars; they just set the audience up for more big songs, which he delivered, over and over.
The Music Hall folks saw this coming. They promoted the show as a follow up to one of the most incredible shows in memory or some such, and they (I think it was them and not the band) distributed glow sticks with instructions to activate them and wave them during the song Lantern from the new album. This is more-or-less the theme song of the tour (there's a lantern on the tour t-shirt), so they could be sure it would be played. Josh, who seemed to be surprised by the glow stick thing, called the crowd to its feet for the song (which they really wanted to do anyway), the glow sticks came out, and it was amazing. I can only imagine what it looked like from the stage. That was one highlight. For me, the other one was also from the new album; the song Rattling Locks was semi-spoken over a propulsive din of percussion, to near-maniacal effect. The recorded version doesn't have half the impact, nor, I think, could it.
In a summer of great music, for me this is the apex, so far. After tonight's free show on Governor's Island, Josh is taking August off, doing an early fall European tour, and then returning for a swing through mostly the upper tier of the U.S., and some Canadian dates. Catch his act, for heaven's sake!
Ain't praying for miracles, I'm just down on my knees
Listening for the song behind everything I think I know
And everything I think I know is just static on the radio.