I got very spoiled the first couple of times I saw Josh Ritter play. He’s still a fairly under the radar artist as far as the mainstream goes, but in 2008 and 2009 he was even more so unknown. He played at Vaudeville Mews, which is a great small room in Des Moines, to about 200 people (including the balcony). Those shows were amazing, with such an intimate atmosphere that he really played up whenever he could. He’d have the venue turn all the lights off for a song, lead a big sing-a-long, and on one occasion had the audience on the floor sing up to the balcony-for some reason a lone voice is all I could hear from the balcony singing back, and it was one of the most beautiful moments I can recall at a live show. The lyrics “Don’t let me into this year with an empty heart” bouncing off the walls of the narrow space.
I’ve seen him over a dozen times since then. Various venues in Chicago, The Majestic in Madison, WI, even all the way out in Colorado where he played with the Boulder Symphony. He still turns the lights out when he sings “In The Dark,” but nothing that matches that feeling of being in a tiny place with huge fans of his music. Seeing him at The Vic on Thursday (third time seeing him at that venue), didn’t come close. But it did feature something new that I never noticed at other shows.
This was the first time I felt like the performance had evolved into a spectacle. The lights being used were more intense-the same feeling I got when I first saw Wilco play “Art Of Almost” live. It’s a totally different set than what I had seen previously. The backdrop, which was nice but stationary for the Sermon On The Rocks gigs, was now functioning as a real part of the show. At one point the lights made it look like the wings of the duck in the painting were flapping, even though I knew they weren’t. It was nice to see the visual aspect of a Josh Ritter concert starting to catch up with the musical performance.
The band played a lot off the new album, which is to be expected. As usual, I am saddened for the loss of some of the great songs that have to be cut to make time for new material. I guess I can always listen to “Wolves” or “Right Moves” at home, but I love to hear them performed live. That said, holy cow do these new songs sound great live. I saw him do a lot of the songs at a solo acoustic show he did at City Winery in January, and it’s impressive to hear both how the spirit has remained the same and how the band takes those songs to a place you could never do alone.
Some highlights include: a duet version of “Hopeful” with Josh and Zachariah Hickman teaming up on once mic, Josh saying “This is where the doctor said I was ‘moody’ before launching in to “Dreams” (the darkest thing he’s done since “Rattling Locks”), and I loved the version of “When Will I Be Changed” with Josh Kaufman’s guitar taking the place of Bob Weir’s vocal.
I hope that I can see Josh Ritter another fourteen or fifteen times over the next ten years. His shows are some of the most joyous and life-affirming you could ever hope to experience. This was the last show of the tour, but they’ll be back out on the road overseas in December before returning for a run starting with an Austin City Limits recording January 12th.