Josh Ritter, The Parish Room, Austin, TX 10/29
Josh Ritter’s undeniable appeal initially emerges in his lyrics. “I’ve got a girl in the war, and her eyes are like champagne,” he sings on “Girl in the War,” the eloquent anti-war parable from his 2006 breakout album The Animal Years. “They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you’ve got is rain.” When Ritter sends up these lines tonight, dozens of college-aged women swoon instantly and repeatedly. More common than song request shout-outs are between-song hollers declaring “We love you, Josh!”
Ritter’s delivery, though, is his true charm. Simply put, the Idaho native’s onstage buoyancy is enthralling. In fact, within the realm of today’s singer-songwriters make no mistake, despite all the tinny guitar-fuzz of his new album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, he’s foremost a stirring storyteller few match Ritter’s intensity and passion in concert. Look no further than his never-ending grin for evidence that this is a man profoundly smitten with performing.
The Parish Room a narrow, tavern-sized Big Easy-style joint above the street-level restaurant Roux is an ideal pairing. It’s atmospheric intimacy highlights the dusky poetics of older gems such as “Harrisburg,” “Kathleen” and “California,” while the room’s powerful acoustics allow new songs like “To the Dogs or Whoever,” “Mind’s Eye” and “Open Doors” to reverberate with ragged fury. The sum total of tonight’s set comprises one of the most fluid, rousing catalogues of contemporary folk music even with the omission of early favorites “Me and Jiggs” and “Come and Find Me.”
Material from The Animal Years stands up the best. The album’s opening trio of “Girl in the War,” “Wolves” and “Monster Ballads” rivals Leonard Cohen’s richest lyrics and proves Ritter one of this generation’s premier craftsmen. But he never takes himself too seriously. At one point, Ritter takes a moment to eye bassist Zach Hickman’s prominent handlebar moustache. He tilts a curious eyebrow toward the crowd.
“You might feel something on the back of your neck this evening and think, Was that a dream?’ Was that an angel’s wing?’” Ritter says earnestly. “You’ll find that it’s Zach’s moustache.” Pause for laughter. “Remember, we all write Valentine’s Day cards, too.”
He doesn’t stop there. After the throbbing “Rumors” (which Ritter sings opera-like, hands extended toward the heavens) and before the ebullient closer “Empty Hearts,” Ritter reflects on his first appearance at the state capitol. “We’ve only played in Austin once before,” he says, unable to get through the quick story without shaking with laughter. “The marquee at Stubb’s read: Gospel lunch, then Josh Ritter, then The Darkness. That’s hardcore.”