|Photo by Jason Gonulsen|
Written by Jason Gonulsen
Ever since Josh Ritter picked up a guitar in Moscow, Idaho, he dreamed about playing the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. I only know this because he told us exactly that, early on in his debut performance at the legendary venue this past Friday. And midway through the opportunity to live his dream, Ritter unleashed one of his most ambitious songs to date — the six-and-a-half minute “Dreams,” from his latest album, Gathering.
Where 2013’s Beast in the Tracks and 2015’s Sermon on the Rocks were somewhat more immediate with songs like “New Lover,” “Hopeful,” “Getting Ready To Get Down” and “Where The Night Goes,” Gathering develops slowly with “Myrna Loy,” “Train Go By,”and “Dreams.”
The latter two were played, back-to-back, on Friday at the Ryman, perhaps to challenge the sold-out audience, which, for the most part was incredibly respectful throughout the evening, minus the woman near me who filmed most of one song, and then decided it a good idea to actually watch her footage, with audio, right after. I mean…
But I digress.
“Dreams” was absolutely stunning. The song itself is a journey on the album, but when witnessed live, you really get pulled in. It has nineteen verses. Not exactly the type of song you choose to perform if you don’t feel like challenging yourself. Ritter, though, made it look easy, singing with his eyes closed — the look of a focused artist who would not prefer to be anywhere else.
He had me hooked during the entire song, but the final, chilling three verses were the ones that did me in:
What else is there to say but to tell you that I love you
I haven’t seen much of the world but I know
That there aren’t any others who know me like you do
And your comfort seems to follow me wherever I go
I know you’re no cure for the darkness inside me
But it feels better just to know that you’re near
And your patience, your joy, and your strength are astounding
And I know that without you, I wouldn’t be here
I know that without you, I wouldn’t be here
And I know that without you, I would not be here
I know that without you, I wouldn’t be here
I know that without you
When I write in the future about honest songwriting, let me always go back to this song. There’s a reason why Josh Ritter is often compared to Bob Dylan, which, let’s face it, is unfair, but it also makes sense. Who else, consistently, is writing songs like this? If you have the answer, I’ll gladly travel to see him or her.
Or maybe I’ll just keep driving across the Midwest to see the sure thing. Because, at this point, that’s who Ritter is. His status as one of America’s best songwriters — easily on the level of a Lucinda Williams — has not been fueled by arena-level hype. It has been earned.
His live performances only cement this belief.
He almost always performs “Monster Ballads” at his shows, because he knows how to drive its magic in a live setting. On this night, he performed it with Sam Kassirer on grand piano, who extended the song with a solo that was as delicate as the stained glass that reflected from the back of the venue. “Out on the desert now and I’m feeling lost,” Ritter sang.
During a solo acoustic rendition of “The Temptation of Adam,” his words stung a little more than normal. Its ten verses are all worthy of an award that Ritter will probably never win, but, you know, who cares. Here are my favorite four.
Oh Marie if you would stay then we could stick pins in the map
Of all the places where you thought that love would be found
But I would only need one pin to show where my heart’s at
In a top secret location three hundred feet under the ground
We could hold each other close and stay up every night
Looking up into the dark like it’s the night sky
And pretend this giant missile is an old oak tree instead
And carve our name in hearts into the warhead
Oh Marie there’s something tells me things just won’t work out above
That our love would live a half-life on the surface
So at night while you are sleeping
I hold you closer just because
As our time grows short I get a little nervous
I think about the Big One, W.W.I.I.I.
Would we ever really care the world had ended
You could hold me here forever like you’re holding me tonight
I look at that great big red button and I’m tempted
That’s how the song ends: with temptation.
Ritter’s show at the Ryman ended with something more: singing about a girl in the war.
“If they can’t find a way to help her, they can go to hell,” he sang.
At the end of “Girl in the War,” he describes her eyes — like champagne. “They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain,” he sings.
Kind of like the morning after a long dream that somehow came true.