Concert Review | Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band at First Avenue in Minneapolis

Photo credit: Marcelo Biglia

Rough seas
they carry me
wherever I go…

The more I listen to Josh Ritter’s latest album, So Runs the World Away, the more I’m convinced it’s about one simple thing: refusing to stand still. So many times in my life I’ve struggled with this notion — to rest on my laurels, to enjoy the past a little bit too much. Thankfully, I’ve come to find that’s not the way to live my life; it’s much better to keep moving, no matter how dark the road ahead may seem.

Ritter, I think he’s the same way. He sings of not being afraid of the dark, to call for a lantern to light his way. He acknowledges the rough seas surround him, knowing they also carry him; he’s smart enough to realize that nothing ever comes easy, nor should anything that is to be appreciated. Josh Ritter has become one of my favorite songwriters because his words seem so real.

And if I had to pick one of the best moments during his show at First Avenue in Minneapolis, it would be at the end of his main set, where he turned one of his best songs, “Change of Time,” into a magical singalong. He started the song with the line I’ve mentioned above, the line that is buried in a hazy swarm of sound near the end of the studio recording. “Rough seas,” he sang, “they carry me, wherever I go.”

Everyone knew what to do. We sang. Loud enough for him to step away from the microphone and smile. It was a beautiful moment, one I’ll always remember.

These are the moments that define a Josh Ritter show. They’re the ones where you’re immediately sure you’re experiencing greatness. Another happened midway through the show when Ritter signaled for the lights to be turned totally off — not dimmed — so he could perform a solo acoustic version of the longest song off The Animal Years, “Thin Blue Flame.” How he remembered all the words, I’m still not sure, but he sang it in complete darkness and silence, and we listened to a tune that novelist Stephen King once called “the most exuberant outburst of imagery since Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ in 1963.” That’s not hyperbole; that’s completely true, and hearing it live in that type of setting had me amazed.

Everything about this show was amazing. The venue, First Avenue, is an absolutely marvelous place to see a concert. It holds about 1,500 people, and if it wasn’t sold out, it was close. Whoever designed the place must have had artists like Josh Ritter in mind; you feel close to the performer. You feel every word, every breath, every minor miscue. You feel like you’re part of an underground music community, a place where the world outside stops for just a few hours. A place where you get to hear Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band cover The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” A place where one of Ritter’s best songs, “Kathleen,” sounds as fresh as the first time you heard it.

In the end, when Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison, who did a fine job of opening the show, joined Ritter for a rendition of The Everly Brothers’ “Stories We Could Tell,” I wondered if live music could get any better. If nothing else, I was sure that I was seeing Ritter at his peak, creatively and emotionally, moving forward in the darkness, wishing only to refrain from staying in one moment too long.

Be the light in my lantern, the light in my lantern tonight.

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