A review of last Friday’s Josh Ritter concert at The Egg. Better late then never, right?

A night after seeing Andrew Bird at the Troy Music Hall, which because of the artist and venue was guaranteed to be a positive experience, I entered more unfamiliar territory with Josh Ritter at the Egg. I’d only heard of him tangentially vis a vis praise heaped on him by a handful of music publications and my company for the evening.

Entering the Egg’s Swyer Theater, my ticket was taken by a confused volunteer usher who stared at it blankly for what felt like an eternity before telling us to simply take any two empty seats we could find together in the row. Thankfully, it was at least the correct row and the ovular design of The Egg’s performance spaces made the fact that our tickets were on the other side of the section a non-issue.

I was accompanied once again by my concert buddy from Andrew Bird, and true to our form, we entered late into John Wesley Harding’s opening set. Harding (real name Wesley Stace, which is the name he goes by as a novelist) takes his name from one of Bob Dylan’s best albums, but his style owes more to Great Britain’s working class industrialist songwriters, with splashes of Pink Floyd and The Who providing color for his take on traditional folk. In between songs, Harding was comfortable and engaging. His charisma carried through to his performances, so I forgave what little I heard that bothered me (such as when the closing number “Devil in Me” devolved into preachy hackery).

Ritter, by contrast, was far less confident being the sole musician onstage. Keeping time was clearly an issue without a backing band, though it only became a distraction when the audience attempted to clap along to his more livelier efforts. Singing with his eyes closed and up into a raised mic stand, he smiled and tittered throughout the set and would excitedly take tiny steps backwards and forwards during his songs as if his feet were bound. It was precocious, but it was genuine. Women throughout the crowd closed their eyes, swayed, and fell in love with the adorable Ritter. One woman two rows in front of me leaned forward to take him in while her boyfriend aggressively rubbing her back in an attempt to draw her attentions back to him. She leaned further forward, but unlike Ritter, the boyfriend’s rhythm could not and would not be broken.

Ritter's isolation was a handicap early in the set, but became a strength as the night wore on.

But one should not let Ritter’s inherent charm overshadow his strength in telling a story. Most of the set’s first half was devoted to how pretty girls are and how much he enjoys spending time with them. Thankfully, his skilland natural charisma kept it from becoming overbearingly trite. The lowlight of the evening came when he performed “Southern Pacifica” and I became convinced that he’d wholly plagiarized it from Calexico (“Cruel” off 2006’s “Garden Ruin” LP). As I thought more about it, I rationalized it as my familiarity and preference for the latter clouding my perception. And, if anything, any similarity was likely unintentional. I’ve posted both videos below for comparison, so you can judge for yourself.

In the second half of his set, Ritter abandoned his libido and showed more versatility as a songwriter and a performer. My favorite was “Another New World,” a maritime ode to a shipwrecked vessel inspired by the last known poem penned by Edgar Allen Poe. Another highlight came when he asked the lights to be gradually brought down during a performance of “California,” followed by him performing the heartbreaking “Lantern” in complete darkness.

Ritter ended the evening and while I didn’t rush home to pick up every album he’d produced, I’d been sold on an artist that I’d been hesitant to embrace due to the nature of his material. It’s easy to listen to songs like “Good Man” and think of him as a pandering neo-folk songbird, but there is clearly more depth to him than that. You just have to stick around a bit to hear it.

See also: Nippertown’s review
Below: Calexico’s “Ruin” and Ritter’s “Southern Pacifica,” for comparison’s sake. Maybe it’s just me.

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One Response to Precocious but charming: Josh Ritter at The Egg’s Swyer Theater

  1. Nippertown! says:

    […] Kevin Marshall’s America: Kevin Marshall serves up a review of Josh Ritter’s recent concert at The Egg and finds Ritter’s “Southern Pacifica” a little too close to Calexico’s […]

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