I cannot imagine what cataclysmic events would have to occur in the life of Josh Ritter to cause him to deliver anything less than a stellar performance. When he's on stage, he's entirely in his element apparently unable to quell an effervescent smile or hit a sour note. As his songs attest, Ritter is no stranger to darker moods and the sadder climes of love's disappointments, but what he brings to the performance is a barely contained joy. Buzzy amps and briefly forgotten lyrics are pesky midges that he flicks away with a fingertip, gliding right on through a set list of remarkably assured songs from a rich and varied store.
Backed by the dexterous work of Josh Kaufman on various guitars and the villainously mustachioed Zack Hickman on bass, Ritter moved effortlessly between styles: the rapid-fire lyric of "Bonfire," the sweet country ballad, "Make Me Down," the rock stomp of "To the Dogs or Whoever." Classics like "Snow is Gone" and "Kathleen" were delivered with characteristic verve, and the newest songs from The Beast in Its Tracks made strong entries in the Ritter canon. "Joy to You Baby" and "New Lover" shimmer with the release of anger and bitterness into the promise of new love.
One of the more thrilling moments was Ritter's delicately creepy rendition of "The Curse." I didn't think it was possible for Headliners to ever be that quiet. People hollering to each other over the music and seemingly bowling with beer bottles is a frequent annoyance at other shows, but here, you could hear a pin drop. Squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder, the crowd collectively held its breath like an ancient assembly in the mead hall, raptly, drunkenly, listening to the Bard unfurl his story. Of course, this modern Bard's stories offer a twist on some of the hallowed heroes, as in "Galahad," where the pure knight of the Holy Grail succumbs to an infamous bait-and-switch at the hands of the angel. Ritter is often at his best when edging his songs with sly humor, and this unreleased song from the So Runs the World Away studio sessions should become a crowd favorite.
Overall, this is perhaps the best-behaved audience I've ever seen at a show anywhere. Perhaps they sprinkled pixie dust in the beer or something. (If only this magical elixir could sooth the bouts of consumptive coughing that are liable to break out at the opera or orchestra.) The audience sang along when they were called upon to sing, they hushed when Josh sang quietly or switched off the amp entirely, they applauded madly when the last chord of a song was strummed, and they stomped the floor for the encore. The lovely "Wait for Love" was the coda to the evening, when the opening artist, Coloradan Gregory Isakov, joined the trio on stage. Isakov is another talent to watch, and thanks belongs to Josh Ritter for pointing it out. And thanks also for transforming a bland Monday night into another special moment for his Louisville fans.
Zack Hickman on bass
Gregory Alan Isakov
[Photo Credits: Lee Burchfield]