It was another warm evening for this second night of a two-night stand at London’s famed Union Chapel – the record-breaking temperatures of the day trailing off with a long tail. Under the stage lights, Josh Ritter, with his full band backing him, was showing the effect of the heat but held nothing back on a set which revisited some of his back catalogue but was also a great opportunity to hear the really strong new songs from his latest album ‘Fever Breaks’ live. It was a setlist with two themes – respecting the venue, there seemed to be many of Ritter’s songs which make use of religious, and specifically Christian, imagery with a second strand of concern for American democracy.
And if it was a set that favoured more recent albums that’s hardly surprising – Josh Ritter’s writing has been so good for so long and shows no signs of diminishing in quality that it would be a crime to continually go back to the early “hits“. So it was that from the outset, the reflective ‘Monster Ballads’, both Ritter and his longtime bandmates showed complete commitment to delivering the pick of the songs at the peak of their collective powers.
New song ‘On the Water’ is a fine Ritter love ballad but ‘Old Black Magic’ lets the band dig into some less frequently heard deep and dirty blues-influenced rock. It sounds, for want of a better description, like latter-day Dylan, but with Ritter’s clear diction and sweet-toned vocals. This is a real band though, with every instrument important, be it the echoing of the drums or the interjection of a sudden sharp sly guitar solo. So when the optimism levels go through the roof on ‘Lantern’ it’s hardly the surprise it should be to see the glee on faces and even open bursts of laughter as the band egg each other on to another cathartic crescendo.
‘Homecoming’ hits the same levels of joy on which is perhaps Ritter’s poppiest song, but he retains the ability to dig deep into the thoughtful such as on ‘Another New World’ which manages to bring a little Arctic chill to the room as he contemplates through a Poe inspired metaphor of exploration, the artistic urge which pushes an artist to go further at the risk of destroying that which he loves. It’s a beautiful story that unfolds at a funereal pace and ends with a typical half-hopeful flourish. It’s one of those pin-drop quiet moments that makes a gig like this so memorable.
There’s a darker side to the set list though. ‘The Torch Committee’ was mesmerising with its rolling Gileadean interrogation, which should be a paranoid fantasy but now feels like only a few steps from reality. Alternatively sympathetic, “We see your feet and legs are tied in clearest breach of by-law five, and left here in this little room in clearest breach of by-law two / and though you know that we take pains the process of the law remains all technicalities aside you see our hands are also tied,” and threatening,”We know the monsters know their names, by which they go and which they change/ … / how we wish that we could say that each of them will walk away / but sadly it’s the awful truth it’s them or us – it’s them or you.” The combination of music and casually threatening lyrics generated real shivers. New song ‘The Gospel of Mary’ was sung solo, with Ritter a brightly lit silhouette, for a song that dug deep into the wrongs being done to those who cross the southern borders into the USA – those with little but each other torn apart, families dispersed and children lost in an uncaring system. There’s no disguising who’s being held to blame for this and how Ritter feels about this behaviour in a land that was built on the back of waves of immigrants.
After an hour or so it seemed almost as if the band had rushed away for a break before a quick encore – but that was not the way it was as the spotlight finally found them huddled together in the pulpit with Ritter quipping that, “I hear some people play here and don’t play in the pulpit” – and jammed in as they were, all acoustic now with keyboards replaced by accordion and an upright bass booming out the beat and huddled around a single microphone, it does seem odd that anyone would not take advantage of this unique opportunity. It was a moment of pure joy. The toe-tapping ‘Long Shadows’, then a poignant nod to Scott Hutchinson with a cover of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘Old, Old Fashioned’ which gleefully embraces the past with a plea to “get old fashioned like things used to be / if I get old old fashioned will you get old fashioned with me”. It jounced along like a hayride wagon, steered expertly by this skiffle band before this mini-set come sermon came to a conclusion with an achingly lovely ‘Kathleen’.
Back out front the band kicked into a couple more from ‘Fever Breaks’, with Ritter bouncing across the stage as fresh and enthusiastic for the gig as he was at the start. ‘Losing Battles’ is a growling rock song of the struggles between doing what one wants and what one should, which linked nicely into ‘Getting Ready To Get Down’ which rejects Bible College restrictions and misogyny, a teenage girl’s tongue-twisting flip of the finger to a controlling patriarchy. “Your soul needed saving so they sent you off to Bible school, you learnt a little more than they’d heard was in the golden rule / …/ give your love freely to whomever that you please don’t let nobody tell you ’bout the who you ought to be / and when you get damned in the popular opinion it’s just another damn of the damn’s you’re not giving.”
After all that energy there can be few songs in Ritter’s songbook more moving as a set closer than ‘The Curse’. It embodies everything that marks Ritter out as one of the finest of songwriting talents – a gentle minor key nostalgic waltz of a song, making for an RKO kind of mood, an unlikely romance from the golden age of cinema. And yet it’s also painfully cruel, the protagonist well aware of what he is doing – lying, evasive and manipulative in love “she asked “are you cursed?” he said “I think that I’m cured” then he kissed her and hoped that she’d forget that question.” With Ritter dancing with little shuffling steps there’s an honest ownership of these emotions as he embodies the re-animated figure. In the darkened Union Chapel it was an intimate moment of conflicted tenderness.
Alone again for the encore Ritter nailed the night closed with the deceptively simple-sounding ‘All Some Kind of Dream’ which tapped in, once more, to that theme of American Democracy and equal treatment for all – it’s Josh Ritter at his protest folksinger best. And with band bows and a final admonishment to be good to each other an evening in the company of a huge talent came to a close.
Opening support had come from the up and coming and already much-lauded on these pages, Ida Mae. They’d made the sensible decision to pull the audience into their short set with a guaranteed pleaser in the form of a slow and steamy ‘I shall be Released’.
The duo are Norwich via Nashville – and Bath and Holloway and a whole lot of other places no doubt – and their bluesy blend of folk and country has something of a Smoke Fairies feel to it. With the twist of male and female vocals and Christopher Turpin’s penchant for changing guitars – ending up on a vintage 12 string resonator for another of their songs of relationships on the verge of collapse, ‘Your love is a long road’, they blasted out on their one “let it rip” song of the night – a classic blues stomper. They’re making a lot of waves at the moment – and are clearly destined for bigger things, so better catch them now in small venues before the moment passes.