Tuesday, November 02, 2010

calling in the dark: the musical conquests of Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter w/ Basia Bulat
Knox United Church
Nov 1/10

They were singing along by the second song, dancing in the aisles by the third. The sold-out crowd at Knox United didn't have to learn to love Josh Ritter (like they learned to love the Bomb), they arrived with hearts firmly on sleeves.

Basia Bulat opened the nearly three solid hours of music with a lively set, so lively that she confessed to almost tearing one of her finger picks in half during Gold Rush. Performing without her band, she was a veritable whirlwind of song. The songs felt as though they were being played at a slightly accelerated pace, and Basia appeared slightly out of breath between songs, but she had no difficulty filling the vaulted rafters of the church with her huge voice.

A nice addition to her set was a Polish folk song which she learned just to placate her mother's disappointment in Basia's grasp of the language. She ended by singing the same lovely a cappella spiritual in the same manner in which I first heard her play it, coincidently at another Calgary church, away from the mic, accompanying herself with hand claps and foot stomps.

Ever since he convinced me that he has the power to control the weather, I have wanted to see Josh Ritter perform again, and to perform a proper concert length set, because that folk festival introduction was just too short.

There is palpable love in the room during a Josh Ritter performance. Part of it stems from the hugely infectious grin that he wears while playing, part of it from his sincerity and humility, and part of it from the obvious affection and respect that the band mates in the Royal City Band have for one another. It's not often that you see a band link arms to take a big bow together.

The Royal City band are fantastic to watch. They play an incredibly tight and slick set, yet feel simultaneously loose and intimate. You believe him when Josh Ritter tells you that they are his best friends (and that they watch a lot of nature shows together on the bus).

Although the band took a few breaks for some solo segments, Ritter himself played for over two solid hours, offering up selections from his buzz-worthy new album So Runs the World Away, as well as drawing heavily from The Animal Years and The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter for crowd favourites.

A Josh Ritter concert is a light-hearted affair, where he waltzes with his guitar, gets down on his knees to let out wolf howls, morphs into Once in a Lifetime, sings in total darkness, and expresses his love for a good murder ballad. Love songs are wonderful, but they get complicated. With a murder ballad, you always know that somebody's going to be dead at the end. But underpinning the levity are powerful musicianship and damn fine songs.

I have to tell you that the writer in me is in complete awe of Josh Ritter's talent. Yes, his songs are musically wonderful and melodically satisfying, but it's the lyrics that elevate him to the status of one of the finest songwriters in the world. When I listen to songs like The Temptation of Adam, Girl in the War, The Curse, and To the Dogs or Whoever, I waffle between wanting to be a better writer and wanting to give up writing entirely.

One concert moment I particularly enjoyed was Josh's introduction to the song Southern Pacifica, dedicating it to Barbara Budd, the former As It Happens host, telling how, growing up in Moscow, Idaho, one of 800 kids in a one-room schoolhouse, the only exotic things to enter his life were the trains that would shuffle by on the nearby tracks, trains bearing the names of Canadian cities, and the voice of Barbara Budd coming in over the radio waves.

It was a lovely bittersweet moment, and it compelled me to come home and unearth from the CBC archives the moment where Josh Ritter phoned in a message for Barbara Budd on the occasion of her retirement from the show. I would encourage you to listen to the brief but eloquent message, if only to get a taste of the wonderful lyrical sensibilities of Josh Ritter's words. To hear the heartfelt message, click onto "listen to part 1 of As It Happens" and jump ahead to 22:58. (Apologies for making you jump through hoops, but it's well worth the listen. Plus there's a song.)

There were only a handful of people still sitting in the pews during the final half dozen songs, and even they were clapping along. I had the feeling that Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band would have been happy to play all night long, had somebody only thought to ask. As was only befitting a church performance, a real feeling of community was formed among those pews last night, and I know I wasn't the only person who filed out of that church with a huge Ritteresque grin on my face.


L said...

I've heard many a great review of Josh Ritter and this one is even greater. I should probably take the hint already, eh?

Wandering Coyote said...

He's from Moscow, Idaho? Interesting! Our high school jazz band goes there EVERY year for a jazz band contest, and have since I was in high school. My brother even went on a few occasions. Small world - sort of.

Glad you had such a great time, Barb. I'd love to see people dancing in a church.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

You really really should, Lesley. I am trying to be gentle with this hint, so don't make me come over there!

It's my kinda worship, WC!
What a strange coincidence, this Moscow, Idaho link; I love stuff like that. Makes me think you should give Mr Ritter a listen.

Stephanie said...

Your review was way better than mine! lol

It sounds like both the Edmonton and Calgary shows were very similar, all the examples you mentioned happened here in Edmonton as well.

But I agree completely, Josh Ritter is an absolute master wordsmith.

Did he mention if he was coming back next summer? He said he was coming to Edmonton, I'm curious if he's going to Calgary as well. Lets cross our fingers.

Flannery Alden Jenny Shaw said...

All hail great music! I'll have to check him out. And Basia's Polish stuff sounds intriguiging too!

Toccata said...

I miss Barbara Budd. I really miss Peter Gzowski. did you read the article about him in Maclean's Magazine? I don't care what they say about him I still think he was brilliant.

I think I would have enjoyed the Polish folk song. Certainly like the story behind it.

I always did enjoy your reviews.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I don't recall him saying specifically that he was coming back in the summer, Stephanie, but I sure hope so. And I really hope you can come down for folk fest! I'd love to see you again.
You wrote a great review! I was charmed to read that in Edmonton he got everyone to slow dance with the person next to them. Aww.

I think you would really like him, Flannery. He's a poet, a happy good-natured poet.

What did McLean's say about Peter Gzowski, Toccata? I have a soft spot for him, as his was one of the first programs that I started listening to on CBC all those years ago. I'll have to check it out.
I miss Barbara Budd too. What a great voice.