|Photo by Jason Gonulsen
UPDATE: Download a recording of the show in FLAC or MP3! Links are at the end of the review.
If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room
The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons
He bent down and made the world in seven days
And ever since he’s been a’walking away
Mixing with nitrogen in lonely holes
Where neither seraphim or raindrops go
I see an old man wandering the halls alone
Only a full house gonna make a home
There’s a lot I want to write about what happened at Off Broadway last night. In a sense, you really had to be there to feel everything — you had to be singing with us, sweating with us, admiring the way that even an oven of a room wasn’t able to take the smile away from Josh Ritter’s face. The singer-songwriter from Idaho has no idea not to have a great time, drenched shirt and all.
I’m not sure live music gets much better than on a night like the one where Ritter and The Royal City Band stormed through 17 songs, unfazed by the steamy conditions, not once acting like they weren’t having the time of their lives and careers as musicians.
When I look back on my favorite concerts of 2011, I’ll be sure to remember more than a few moments from Ritter’s performance. Early on, he treated us with “Wolves,” “Right Moves,” and “Lillian, Egypt,” played consecutively, and each done with grace and passion. Case in point, when Ritter slightly moved away from his microphone to deliver the final verse during “Wolves,” he gave it that extra special touch to draw us in closer to the words and beauty of the song: “At times in the frozen nights I go roaming, in the bed she used to share with me.” This is why Ritter is regarded as one of the best living songwriters — he’s able to bring you into his world where everything seems so real, where the past beckons and becomes something that haunts your sleep.
Later, during “Rattling Locks,” which featured three different band members smacking around drumsticks, his voice took on a more sinister tone. “Ain’t nothing new about the world that I ain’t learned from just watching you go by,” he sang with a certain fire in his belly. We all joined in later during the chorus to help him create a darker mood — “Black hole, black hole,” we shouted. It wouldn’t be the last time we sang along.
Ritter instructed that the lights be turned off during The Animal Years’ “In The Dark,” a song he performed sans amplification. I’m not sure what was more beautiful — the fact that we were all singing in the darkness in one of my favorite venues, or that it was so damn quiet while Ritter strummed his guitar and whispered lyrics like, “Every heart is much the same/ We tell ourselves down here/ The same chambers fed by veins/ The same maze of love and fear.“
During “Harrisburg,” Ritter cleverly told a story of a Super 8 motel room, and envisioning a crack in the ceiling, slowly and maddeningly broadening. This led into a snippet of The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” which was perfectly and surprisingly executed — slowly, the crowd realized what was going on: Ritter set us all up, and we were loving every second of the moment that was eventually delivered.
His artistry didn’t end there, as he danced with his guitar midway through “The Curse,” a song about a developing romance between a mummy and an archeologist (yes, it’s as weird as it seems, but also undeniably touching). Then, his words once again took the lead, overpowering us with imagery during “Thin Blue Flame,” my favorite Ritter tune. “At night I make plans for a city laid down/ Like the hips of a girl on the spring covered ground/ Spirals and capitals like the twist of a script/ Streets named for heroes that could almost exist/ The fruit trees of Eden and the gardens that seem/ To float like the smoke from a lithium dream,” he sang.
Soon, the calls for “Kathleen” were heard, and Ritter delivered the sing-a-long as the final song of the main set. He had us all slow dance in the thick heat, swaying back and forth before delivering the final two verses. Again, we knew what to do: we sang. This time, loud enough for Kathleen, or for the girl of our dreams, to hear our call: please let us drive you home.
Ritter returned to the stage for two encores, the first being a solo acoustic “Change of Time,” one of the best songs off 2010’s So Run the World Away. Our voices returned to help him close out the song with soft chants of “Rough seas, they carry me wherever I go.” It was another dreamlike moment, one that was followed with a blistering “To the Dogs or Whoever,” which finally closed out the night. We collected our breath and whatever was left of our dehydrated bodies, and headed for the door, where the slightly cooler air outside met our faces. A full house of people with memories of a perfect summer night of live music. A full house that no doubt made us all a lasting home: one in our minds and in our souls.
Download a recording of the show: