Josh Ritter w/ Basia Bulat
Knox United Church
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.