Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Martin Benjamin
There’s no denying that there’s a lot of Bob Dylan in singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s literate, densely packed songs. And there’s more than a pinch of Bruce Springsteen in his performance style, which found him collapsing down on his knees on stage, not once, not twice, but three times during his sold-out concert at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre last month.
But the Idaho native doesn’t deserve the kiss-of-death “new Dylan” tag any more than Springsteen did back when it was hung like an albatross around his neck back during his early, pre-Boss, Asbury Park days.
No, Ritter is his own man, and he roared into The Egg in Albany armed with confidence and a whole, big batch of new songs from The Beast in His Tracks, his new album that arrives in stores today (Tuesday, March 5). While he’s brought his band with him for shows at MASS MoCA and the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in recent years, he’s only previously played solo shows at The Egg.
“If it looks like we’re nervous it’s because we are,” Ritter freely admitted to the crowd, as he launched into one of the first of a handful of dates on the band’s pre-release tour. And he meant it – of the 25 songs that they served up at The Egg, more than one-third of them (10, to be exact), were culled from the upcoming album, which no one in the enthusiastic, jam-packed crowd had heard yet.
No matter. There was precious little tentativeness during Ritter’s knock-out performance. In fact, he didn’t exhibit an ounce of self-doubt during his two-hour performance.
Despite the fact that the album was written and recorded during the 18 months after his marriage had dissolved, Ritter’s songs weren’t overpowered by spite or darkness. He didn’t shy away from bouts of bitterness in his writing, but it wasn’t all about oh-woe-is-me despair.
In fact, Ritter laced his post-break-up songs with a sense of undeniable freedom. “A Certain Light” was couched in a bouncy pop melody, as Ritter sang, “I’m happy again for the first time in a long time.” And emphasizing his light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel attitude, Ritter returned to the song later in the show, folding some of the same lyrics into another new surprisingly optimistic – or at least accepting – tune, “New Lover,” as he crooned, “I’ve got a new lover now/I hope you’ve got a lover, too.”
Other new songs – like the one-two opening volley of “Evil Eye” and “Bonfire” – exhibited Ritter’s considerable growth as a writer, as well as his undeniable charm as an entertainer. Rarely will you find a performer who seems as genuinely thrilled to be on stage, and at the The Egg Ritter was often quite literally jumping for joy. The crowd was only a modicum less enthusiastic, bouncing in their seats throughout most of the show, but especially when Ritter uncorked such crowd-pleasers as “Harrisburg” (tapping into a Gerry Rafferty vibe) and the swaggering “Kathleen” (with an off-the-cuff narration concerning his day wandering about the Empire State Plaza).
While the four-piece backing combo never really cut loose with abandon, the Royal City Band added some muscle and plenty of tonal texture to Ritter’s rich, unabashedly literate songs. Led by handlebar-mustachioed musical handyman Zack Hickman (on electric and acoustic bass, guitar and backing vocals), the quartet of musicians conjured the most from the delicate, fragile waltz of “The Curse,” the deep-bass thunder of “Hopeful” and the Stagger Lee-inspired murder ballad “Folk Bloodbath.”
But Ritter still got the job done, even without the support of his band. His brief, mid-set solo turn featuring “The Temptation of Adam” (a haunting post-apocalyptic love-song narrative) and “Here at the Right Time” (sung off-mic without amplification of any kind) proved that Ritter is plenty capable of still doing it on his own.
The British folk-rock quintet the Dunwells – led by brothers/guitarists/alternating lead vocalists Joseph and David Dunwell – opened the show with an eight-song, 35-minute set of rousing, semi-acoustic, harmony-filled tunes highlighted by the anthemic opener “Blind Sighted Faith” and the thumping pub sing-along “I Could Be a King.”
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Ritter said that many of the songs he was playing he had never performed before. They were all good, and the crowd offered hearty applause but nothing compared to what they offered when he played the stuff they knew… The screams finally came when he started to strum ‘Lillian, Egypt.’ He and his band turned it up a bit for this. However, afterwards, rather than ride a little momentum, he went right back to a solo ballad, ‘The Temptation of Adam,’ a gentle contemplative tune, like Leonard Cohen doing pop. He could have used a hand-clapping fun one right there. Then came the energy of ‘Harrisburg,’ which is about as heavy as he gets, then the equally-strong ‘Right Moves.’ After the crowd happily settled, he humbly asked the rhetorical question, ‘Is it going alright for you?'”
NOTE: Josh Ritter and his band are headed back to Greater Nippertown for a concert at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton at 8pm on Thursday, May 9. The Felice Brothers open the show. Tickets are $28.50 & $38.50, both of which include a download of Ritter’s new album.
JOSH RITTER & THE ROYAL CITY BAND SET LIST
The Appleblossom Rag
A Certain Light
The Temptation of Adam (solo)
Here at the Right Time (solo, off-mic)
In Your Arms Again
Joy to You Baby
Change of Time
To the Dogs or Whoever
THE DUNWELLS SET LIST
Blind Sighted Faith
Goodnight My City
Hide & Seek (Imogen Heap)
I Could Be a Ling
Follow the Road