by Roy Kasten
Josh Ritter and the Royal Family Band | Yellowbirds
July 22, 2011
"This will be the world's first protozoan slow dance," Josh Ritter said, squinting against the sweat, bringing the band down towards the end of the night. "You don't have to touch each other though."
So all of us swayed together, a great smiling, humming-along mass, some of us finding a partner and waltzing, stickiness be damned. On stage Ritter twirled with his guitar clutched in his arms like the prodigal child who'd finally come home to him.
This was not a punk rock show.
To describe the music of Josh Ritter as earnest is to call Horatio Alger hopeful, Holden Caulfield disaffected and Hamlet a mama's boy. He's as sincere as a sonnet, as genuinely happy a performer as you'll ever see outside a circus where the free lemonade is laced with Zoloft. He knows he's lucky and he's supremely comfortable in his sweat-soaked skin. He gives hugs to strangers and music critics.
He's also a hell of a songwriter, with inexhaustible reserves of bittersweet and beautiful images of wolves and angels and trains and star-domed landscapes, all of which, when he sings them, seem like so much more than just signifiers of his unfailing romanticism.
The show, sold out for months, started just after 8 p.m. with Yellowbirds, a New York trio led by Sam Cohen (of Apollo Sunshine), who gave Ritter a run for his sincerity. But less with songs and more with airy and smartly guitar-riffed mood pieces, sustained by open, post-jazz drumming and well-shuffled time-signatures. "Pulaski Bridge" had a good, spinning carousel of a melody and "The Color," the title track to the band's most recent album, nearly pulled off the we're-going-to-get-quiet-on-your-chatter move. A final guitar spasm made for a bracing closer; the crowd's response hinted that it would have welcomed more of the same.
At 9 p.m. Ritter and the Royal Family Band -- Austin Nevins on guitar, Sam Kassirer on keys, Liam Hurley on drums and longtime friend Zack Hickman on bass -- started out with the first of many songs of exploration, literal and metaphoric, "Other Side," from his first non-demo album Golden Age of Radio. He knows how to set a scene: "When you're left in the middle of the Midwest sky / Everywhere you look is the other side." And then he's there, eyes closed, broadly smiling, back in Moscow, Idaho, where somehow all these songs come from and which all of them transcend. He has that uncanny ability to go there and take you with him, if you check your cynicism and irony at the door. A good song will do that, and Ritter has a dozen sets' worth of those, were there time.
The night's pacing was remarkable, both in arrayed rhythms and genuinely intimated connections. From second song "Wolves" (off of his best album, Animal Years), with Ritter baying at an imagined moon, and the crowd baying along with him, to the yacht disco of "Right Moves," to the absurd girl-tied-to-the-tracks fantasy "Lillian, Egypt," with a shout-out to Missouri the crowd loved, to the hushed electric strums of "Southern Pacifica," another railroad ballad -- he apologized for that, saying the room was too hot and sexy for train songs -- that finally built speed and burst wide open into something very much like rock & roll. One does get the sense that he could do this all week; the brilliant spillage of lyricism would never run out.
If you're visiting this blog from Alaska, you should know that it gets rather hot in St. Louis in July. This city of bricks becomes an urban heat island of ovens, and though Off Broadway had been baking all day long, the room wasn't unbearable. Ritter did ask for some cups of water to be sent towards the folks in front, and they made it across the crush to the wilting patrons safely. The chap inspires that kind of solidarity; you'd trust him with the keys to grandma's safe.
But there's just a hint of recklessness in his generous joy as well, most notably on "Rattling Locks," a clattering song that sent the singer stage left to the keyboards where he banged and howled a bit, before turning to a cut from Golden Age, "Harrisburg," a sprawling narrative with a strangely-embedded spoken-word story of someone seeking refuge in a Super 8 motel room with a symbolic crack spreading across the ceiling. The desperate image led deftly into a tease from the Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime." Then, in a move he's now made classic, he brought the lights down, completely down, for a solo acoustic "In the Dark," before turning to a cover of "Pale Blue Eyes," with quartet harmonies -- just another reminder of how well he can work a room.
The show ended, as it should, with the waltz "Kathleen" and an encore of "Change of Time" from So Runs the World Away, sung as a solo acoustic call-and-response round with a crowd that didn't need cueing, and then with the full band again throwing everything they had at one more song: "To the Dogs or Whoever."
"This was some kind of new world record," Ritter said, as drenched as everyone else. "We won't forget it." He and his band weren't alone.
Notes and setlist after the break.
Personal Bias: I interviewed Ritter for No Depression (RIP) back in 2003 on the day Johnny Cash died. Ritter was as unguarded as you'd guess. A few years later, I hosted the songwriter at the 88.1 KDHX studios for a solo acoustic session. Afterwards, he had an in-store at Vintage Vinyl and I gave him a lift in my 1966 VW. He threw his guitar in back, climbed in, looked at me and said, "I'm guessing there's no seat belts." We made it to Delmar on time.
By the way: Ritter read from his new novel Bright's Passage earlier Friday afternoon at Left Bank Books. To get a taste of the novel's (and the author's) charm, don't miss this pastiche video reading, featuring family and friends, including songwriter Tift Merritt.
Overheard: Or not quite overheard, but glimpsed: Some 45 minutes after the show, walking back to my vehicle, I saw a young couple sitting on the hood of their car, parked alone on Lemp Avenue. They were looking back towards the club and the steamy, starless sky. There was nothing to see beneath the streetlights, just the running lights of Ritter's tour bus and the club where they'd just been to a show they weren't ready leave.
In the Dark
Pale Blue Eyes
Thin Blue Flame
Change of Time
To the Dogs or Whoever