This was not a gig to turn up late to – well before the advertised doors opening time a sizeable portion of the audience were patiently queuing in the rapidly cooling clear April early evening. The first advertised but the second of two solo gigs back-to-back in London – it had been Bush Hall the night before – had sold out in seconds, hardly surprising since Josh Ritter can easily achieve a sell out at a venue such as The Barbican. The 150 person capacity St. Pancras Old Church is thus a venue that makes the intimate Bush Hall seem like an expansive cavern by comparison. Add in to all this that Josh Ritter last played the UK back in the last decade and it was no surprise that there was a keen anticipation for a rare solo appearance. There’s a new album on the way, so there was the prospect of some new songs alongside the promise of crowd favourites – and if one was lucky, personal favourites – and, well, whatever Josh chose to play.
And for those who rely on Americana UK for its sober and balanced assessment of the music scene, well we’re going to disappoint you today. There may be a flourish of purple prose, there may be statements that sound perilously close to hyperbole – but don’t worry, because Josh Ritter deserves it all. So, in that sense, it is, still, sober and balanced reporting. Josh Ritter has been making albums for close to a quarter century and he is one of those vanishingly small number of artists who have been good from their debut and have never made an album since that was ever less than very good, and generally a notch or two higher than that. Josh Ritter is an artist that, for some reason unfathomable to this writer, is slightly taken for granted – the new songs come along and we rave about them, the new album is released and it is one of the best of the year, his gigs are never less than memorable fired by a relentless energy. And yet between these events he barely gets a mention – few are the album reviews which say “reminiscent of Josh Ritter at his best,” probably because so very few albums and artists are reminiscent of Josh Ritter at his best. Here’s an artist who plays with mythological metaphors – often drawing on his Christian upbringing – with an ease associated with few others (you suggest Dylan – we agree) and in his lyrically dense songs touches on love, grief, death, emotional highs and lows and searing political take-downs – ‘Fever Breaks‘ wrestled with the state of the USA with as much passion as the Drive By Truckers, albeit framed within folk bounds but no less cutting for being attached to a “gentler” sound as it confronted a political brutality.
St. Pancras Old Church – most famous in Rock history for being one of the photo shoot locations on The Beatles’ “Mad Day Out” is a particularly beautiful gig location, with ornate monuments looming from all sides, the floor in places paved with gravestones: Josh Ritter spotted one behind him, a person who had died the day after the gig but hundreds of years ago. And the acoustics are wonderful – enabling Ritter to sing off-mic and a capella on a couple of occasions. Ritter bounded on stage at nine – dressed in paint spattered overalls and flash and shiny trainers. The daylight which had backlit the earlier opening singer Niamh Reagan was now fully faded as the single figure mid-stage lit by blue and red lights became fully the focus of attention and with barely pausing for a greeting Josh Ritter launched into a trio of songs on the subject of love. There’s the contented feel of finding love of ‘Thunderbolt’s Goodnight‘ and then the chugging ‘Feels Like Lightning‘ and the panic of when love first strikes. These are capped with a song from the new album ‘Spectral Lines‘ – ‘For Your Soul‘ though it is perhaps thinking of a different love, love of country: “Will you be righteous and strong / By saying when you are wrong / And put aside your own fear” fits a tense and fractured political situation a much as it does a vacillating lover.
‘Henrietta, Indiana‘ is the first of the night’s great ballad tales – a song of desperation leading to drunkenness, robbery and living outside the law of man and god with the added twist of “like father like son.” The glorious ‘Wolves‘, with it’s big anthem chorus, is always a crowd pleaser and tonight is no different. Ritter is so fast between songs – a capo whipped off, a swig of water and then onto a song he wants to sing, and maybe it’s because “I just wrote it.” According to the set list it’s called ‘Any Bird’ and over a slow folk accompaniment it imagines exploring heaven alone having found that “there was no-one to meet me at the gates of Heaven.” It’s an epic of a song as Ritter discovers no angels dancing on pin heads, no seraphim, which leaves him to weigh his own sins. Alone in paradise the only momentary sense of contact is when a bird flies by – and in this emptiness each seems to carry the soul of a friend. It’s a stunning song, and it doesn’t not appear to be scheduled for the new album. From the very new there’s a full return to Ritter’s folk roots – ‘Folk Bloodbath‘ is a clever finger-picked retelling of ‘Louis Collins‘ and ‘Stack-O-Lee‘ with perhaps a nod to both ‘St James Infirmary‘ and ‘Delia’s Gone.‘ Ritter introduced ‘Tennessee Stud‘ as the “first song I ever heard” and by this performance he’s clearly almost learnt it – there’s a couple of stumbled lines and hummed lyrics, but it doesn’t detract from the energy of the performance, if anything it further enhances the House Gig feel of the night.
Another new song, ‘Truth is a Dimension both Invisible and Blinding‘, also not on the new album (which might suggest that the album after next isn’t too far away) is a story song which balances a student of astronomy’s insights into the nature of truth in an infinite universe with equally weighty observations on the loss of Tanya, the only woman he’ll ever love, to Neil. It’s funny – but not trivial. Ritter picked up the beat with another big anthem song, a glorious ‘Right Moves‘, and then pulled the pace right back again with the slow waltz of ‘Strangers‘ and, also from ‘Gathering‘, the intensely lyric heavy ‘Dreams‘ with its so appropriate themes of loss of religion and loss of love and its cinematic lyrical images tripping out with a dazed and confused rapidity. It’s about love, and despair and bleakness and if that seems a bit heavy, Ritter lightened the mood with a brief ‘Make Somebody Happy,‘ whose manifesto he fully endorses.
Heading into the last third of the gig and a couple of dozen songs flowed over the evening almost seamlessly with minimal between song talking other than to express a heartfelt gratitude to be out touring again and thanks for us all taking the time to turn-out (really, Josh, where else would we better be?). There was a series of the “big” songs – ‘Monster Ballads‘, a riotous ‘Kathleen‘ with its love falling on the hopelessly romantic side and an equally riotous ‘Harrisburg‘ with doom falling on all sides. A cover of the The Sweetback Sisters song ‘Deputy Blues No. 2‘ was suitably fast and twisting to appear as part of the Ritter canon. This still left room for two more new songs – the sung off mic’ ‘In Fields‘ is a simple declaration of pure love, whilst ‘Theophoney‘ was a tremendous parable – somewhat reminiscent of Ursula Le Guinn – where a narrator encounters a trapped and humbled god who has been made to serve the strong and do all those things that gods are used for “2nd amendments and new holy wars, and helping the strong so that they’ll help the weak, protecting the mighty that they might shepherd the meek, and when people get shot and folks say that they care they need something to go through all the thoughts and the prayers.” The irony is heavy and the solution is bold – to release the trapped god and let it “live on its own and then so could we.” Imagine no religion – it’s easy if you try.
After a brief off-stage flit, Ritter returned for an encore that suitably capped the evening – a narrative song par excellence, ‘The Curse‘, with its tale of the doomed love between an archaeologist and the still living Mummy she discovers. It’s a beautiful and magical story, an allegory for a selfish love after a period of living a life in stasis, recovering from the curse of lost love and inflicting that on another. The layers of deceit and affection wrapped together like the embalmer’s linen. Is it Josh Ritter’s greatest song? Well…maybe – but there are a lot of contenders. The night was brought to a quiet conclusion with an off mic’ and unaccompanied ‘Parting Glass‘ with Ritter gesturing for audience quiet for three verses sung high and clear. A proper folk ending. What a gig it had been – magical, and hard to believe that it actually happened. And there was good news for Josh Ritter fans as he mentioned that he’d be back for a full band tour in October. Good news indeed.
Niamh Reagan, from Galway (“that always gets a woo!“), had opened the evening, along with electric guitarist Jake (“from Dublin. That never does.“) who added echoey and spacey backing to Reagan’s songs of mostly small scenes from relationships in different stages of coming together – or falling apart. ‘I’m too nice’ is an ambiguous statement which shouldn’t be taken at face value as the song reveals a hint of malevolence and cyber stalking. ‘Happy Again‘ is failing at making the best of a bad situation – she knows what he’s doing, but would compromise or even ignore it if things got better. But even with that there’s been “days after weeks” of not talking. Niamh Reagen is an enthusiastic singer, clearly enjoying herself despite the generally downbeat lyrics she conveys – which she self-deprecatingly acknowledges once or twice. And Josh Ritter, it transpired, had been an early inspiration to write songs – she’d had the ‘Animal Years‘ poster on her wall when she was growing up. Ouch.