If Josh Ritter could be prescribed on the National Health Service then he’d be a ‘happy pill’ – his enthusiasm for his music and his unalloyed joy when playing are so infectious that everyone leaves his shows feeling uplifted and grinning from ear to ear. Tonight, at the second of two sold out London gigs, people had travelled far and wide to catch him and his trusty lieutenants, the Royal City Band, promoting his latest release "The Beast in its Tracks."
This ‘break up’ album is his most personal to date; the songs chart the dissolution of his marriage to the singer songwriter Dawn Landes and his emerging relationship with author Hayley Tanner (with whom he has since fathered a daughter, Beatrix). The songs on the album are mostly acoustic numbers but in live performance, with a band, they are ‘bigger’ and the sense of hope for the future comes through palpably - you know that Ritter has done some soul searching through dark times but is now in a new and once again, happy place.
Opening with a solo acoustic version of Bruce Springsteen’s The River before being joined by Zachariah Hickman (bass), Austin Nevins (Guitar), Sam Kassirer (piano) and Liam Hurley (drums), Ritter commanded proceedings throughout and even though this was a standing venue (code for noisy, inattentive audiences) he had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the outset. They clapped along, they sang along, they listened quietly, they moved to the rhythm. They laughed, they cheered, they held their breath, they whispered, they stood in the dark, they shouted out requests. They were thankful, they were appreciative, they wanted more…
Ninety minutes (and more) passed by in seemingly the blink of an eye – the set list was paced really well with crowd pleasers (Lillian, Kathleen, Harrisburg) interspersed with much more introspective material (New Lover, Joy To You Baby). For The Curse Ritter asked for the lights to be dimmed to create an atmosphere ‘like it would have been 5000 years ago’ as he sang the song of the story of the archaeologist who falls in love with a mummy whose tomb she discovered. For a solo Bone of Song Ritter asked for ‘God’s headlight and God’s backlight’ to be switched off and sang it in complete darkness – you couldn’t see him at all as he was dressed completely in black, the stage was dark and the venue was below ground so no windows to allow in any light at all – just magical!
Generously, for the encores, Ritter invited opener Bhi Bhiman to join the band and gave him centre stage to sing one of his own songs Guttersnipe after which it was time for the finale – the boys really rocked it out with To the Dogs or Whoever.
You can probably gather that I’m something of a fan; I first saw Ritter play eleven years ago and have been following his career pretty closely since – from being only one of a handful in the audience in those early days to one of hundreds now is sheer joy. Josh – keep on keeping on!