Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I'm Singing for the Love of It

“Great,” I thought, “the T is on fire.”
Indeed, Boston’s relic of a subway system had shut down due to a small trash fire near the park station stop on the green line. Floods of people poured through the Commons as they wandered aimlessly and shouted into cell phones, presumably complaining about ruined travel plans for Columbus Day Weekend. I could not help but laugh, thinking about the last time Mike had visited: the whole Manhattan MTA had flooded and been shut down during an August 8th storm. I had been among the screamers that day, as I walked a soaking 40 blocks to get to work.

“Public transit seems to suffer whenever we get together,” I laughed. Mike, my 6’2”, bearded, jolly, whale of a friend chuckled at my observation and added, “I guess as long as we can get to Somerville by 9:00, we should be fine.” Clearly, we were not as grumpy, or as inconvenienced, as all of the busy bodied commuters hustling through the commons that afternoon. In the face of being marooned, we welcomed a walk on an otherwise beautiful fall day. And as the rest of Boston toiled over the subway problem, the Redsox game that evening versus the Angels, and getting out of town, Mike and I meandered northwest towards a small theatre that held the promise of entertainment – a rock concert.

Mike is a self-proclaimed Josh Ritter super fan, and the one responsible for my keenness of the Moscow, ID songwriter. He had flown to Boston three days earlier to visit a string of Montana friends, and moreover, to witness his 8th and 9th Josh Ritter concerts at the quaint and charming Somerville Theatre, tucked next to Tufts Universities’ main campus in Davis Square. Clearly an insider among the Josh Ritter scene, Mike had spent the previous day volunteering for Josh Ritter’s “Street Team,” posting flyers around Harvard Square with another Montana friend that we were to meet at the concert that evening.
We arrived at Davis Square to find a throng of street performers and college students lingering outside, singing songs and beating drums in what was a seemingly hip and musically oriented area. We headed towards the theatre and presented our tickets to gain access to the small seated venue. An hour late, we missed the opening act, which according to our friends, was received by the audience quite well. In a word, the crowd seemed to be overwhelmingly bearded, most noticeably my troupe of Montana friends. This plethora of facial hair seemed overwhelmingly obvious to me, as my youthful demeanor had earned me the moniker, “skin-face” among my male friends, and also ensured the bartender asked me my birthday as I requested a pint of the UFO IPA, despite the bracelet that professed I was of the legal drinking age. Twenty something young professionals and students dominated the crowd, and it seemed to be fairly homogenous in demographic – white males: most likely an indication of the country influenced style that Josh Ritter performs. “Flannels and beards everywhere,” I thought, “but not nearly as much as the Iron & Wine show last week.” I noticed a table with merchandise set up at the entrance to the theatre and a man selling green trucker hats with the lone word “Jiggs” printed across front –a reference to a song from Josh Ritter’s Golden Age of Radio – a testament to the cowboy/western culture that is intertwined with Josh Ritter’s music.

Built in 1914, the theatre itself is a remnant of the Great War era, and was designed as a performance venue for plays, opera, vaudeville, and “that new fad, motion pictures.” The main stage has capacity for approximately 900 guests, including balcony seating, and has only 16 rows in the main orchestra seating section, making all performances extremely intimate. Although used primarily for motion pictures, the venue was designed with and retains startlingly strong acoustic qualities that reinforce and distribute sound without overwhelming the audience. Such a small area could be problematic for more raucous bands, but the presence of mandatory seating due to fire codes usually deter such acts from touring through Somerville.

The lights flashed and concertgoers scurried from the lobby to take their seats in the theatre. I found my seat at the back of the orchestra section and waited as audience members spoke in hushed tones of anticipation. With a huge grin, Josh Ritter entered the stage to a raucous applause. Wearing a stylish gray suit to compliment a clean shave, it occurred to me that his appearance was a far departure from his earlier days with a bushy red beard and a black Stetson. As if to steer my thoughts away from this realization, Josh Ritter and his four piece band launched into To the Dogs or Whoever, track one on his new album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. The soundman had done his job well, and instrument and vocal levels seemed very well balanced but still promoted the driving nature of the song that included a wandering bass line and strong synth-organ harmonies. After just a few measures, the audience, myself included, roared him on in a moment of recognition and approval.

The clangy upbeat sound makes the song seem like it could just as easily fit in a 1850’s saloon, but listening closely to the lyrics reveals that this is not your average country song from an anything but average lyricist. In the first verse alone, Josh references Florence Nightingale, Calamity Jane, and Joan of Arc and then dedicates an individual stanza to each of them as the song progresses. Near the end of the song, Josh Ritter questions,

“Was it Casey Jones, or Casey at the Bat, that died out of pride and got famous for that? Killed by a swerve, laid low by the curve, do you ever think they ever thought they got what they deserved?”

Lyrics such as these explain the comparisons that are drawn to Bruce Springstein, Townes Van Zandt, and most notably, Bob Dylan - the icons of American song writing – and help establish Josh Ritter as one of the most clever, if not talented, song writers performing today.

The earnest enthusiasm that Josh Ritter has become famous for was palpable during the song. A grin that stretched ear to ear spoke to the fervor of his performance and stage presence – a wholly contagious combination – and perusing the faces of the audience, the ostensible smiles challenged that of the troubadour on stage. The crowd went wild at the conclusion of the song, and I looked over to see Mike and Harry, the friend that we met at the concert, hooting and hollering with arms in the air. “Thanks to you for being here!” Josh said into the microphone and then kidded, “I know that the T was on fire or something today, and that there’s some kind of ball game going on tonight, so I just can’t thank you all enough for coming out to see me here.” As he progressed with his set list, there were no shouts from the crowd of song requests – no chattering and no drunken babbling – and it became apparent that the awestruck audience, like Josh Ritter, was just happy to be there.

A large proportion of the set list coming from Josh Ritter’s recent album, which released on August 21 in the US, the crowd was able to discern all of the new material and soaked up the performance. I even caught Mike and Harry racing one another to identify tunes before the general audience could figure them out - “perhaps an JRitt-cred battle”, I thought. Ritter, however, did perform a number of fan favorites from previous albums such as the snare drum driven Good Man, the biblical referencing Girl in the War, the Huckleberry Finn alluding Monster Ballads, and in the bridge of Harrisburg, surprisingly launched into a cover of Tiny Cities Made of Ashes by Modest Mouse. Rarely wiping the smile from his face, after every few songs Ritter would lean into the microphone and thank the audience again. The golden moment of the show came when backed by the brass section of the opening act, Old School Freight Train, Josh Ritter began playing The Temptation of Adam, or as he labeled it, “a song about what it would take to get a girlfriend.”

The song describes a man and a woman meeting for the first time as they enter a missile-silo, supposedly to avoid fall-out from the onset of World War III. While the subject matter is inherently grave, Josh Ritter’s lyrics focus on the love that emerges between the two residents and the male’s consequent concern that at the conclusion of the war, their romance would no longer flourish. In this song, Ritter evokes more imagery and emotion in 10 stanzas than most authors do in whole novels, and he seems to capture and portray his characters perfectly. The lingering effect of the song is one of sincere sentimentality, and Ritter achieves this through his use of a tender melody placed over a reflective chord progression (IV, I, iii7, vi, I, V, I), played on acoustic guitar, and accompanied in sections by horns and synth-organ. The gravity and grace of the song however, are juxtaposed with beautifully clever and playful lyrics that leave the listener unclear how to best appreciate Ritter’s work.

As Josh weaved through the complex finger picking pattern on his acoustic guitar he delicately sang through his smile with a hollow voice that seemed on the threshold of cracking. I searched the audience again to witness the serenity, calm, and halcyon enjoyment leaking from the crowd and it became clear to me that this sold-out house truly appreciated the sincerity with which Josh Ritter performed as well as the effort he put in to make every song perfect both on stage and in recording. Mike reaffirmed my suspicions, later adding, “He’s just having a great time up there and the audience really recognizes that and takes it to heart. I’ve been to a lot of shows where the band just seems to be going through the motions and that same indifference has an effect on the crowd. But with Josh – and this is my ninth show now – no matter how popular he’s gotten, he is just almost…awestruck that people actually like listening to his music.” Immediately, I thought of a lyric from The Snow is Gone on his second album: “I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.” While Mike praised Josh Ritter’s enthusiasm and performance style, Harry – a philosophy major at Brandeis University - placed a high value on Josh Ritter’s lyrical content stating, “His lyrics are just perfect. He does an amazing job of piecing together stories through his wordplay…I guess you would say his lyrics pull the listener into these stories and help them take on the singer’s perspective. And when you look at all of the historical and literary references he makes, I just can’t help but think, ‘this is a really, really smart guy.’”

Josh Ritter’s fans adore him, and I am no exception, but conversations with Mike, Harry, and other fans point to the inaccessibility of his music to a wider public. While he possesses more charisma than any other performer I have ever seen, on the surface, Josh Ritter’s music appears to be otherwise unimpressive. He possesses an average amount of musical talent, his Idahoan twang could be considered wholly forgettable, and he performs within the confines of a stylistically limiting genre. But my appreciation for his music, like so many of his fans, developed after familiarization with and careful scrutiny of his lyrical content. After identifying his clever word play and endless historical references, it became apparent to me that Josh Ritter is an exceptional songwriter who appeals to and perhaps only deserves above average fans that are capable of identifying such lyrical mastery. That is to say, Josh Ritter’s music does not lend itself to the casual listener, and this artist who wins over fans through seemingly endless on-stage charm has developed a close-knit fan-base that appreciates his music through a more active style of consumption.

After a ninety-minute performance, the Old School Freight Train band joined the band on stage for The Next to the Last True Romantic, and losing his voice, it became clear that Josh Ritter had given everything he had that night. Grins on our faces, Mike, Harry, I left the Somerville Theatre humming to ourselves mingled in with a content crowd that enjoyed all it was promised; a night of entertainment at a rock concert.

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