Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band at Prescott Park (Portsmouth, NH – Sept. 2, 2015)
by: Ken Templeton
Josh Ritter and his band had a lot of fun unveiling a host of new songs from the forthcoming album Sermon on the Rocks; and they should be having fun–the new tunes were fantastic, full of the playful lyricism and joyful performance that has defined Ritter’s career.
Bhi Bhiman opened the show with a tight set mostly from his new album Rhythm and Reason. I’ve been wanting to see him for a while and he did not disappoint. It felt like his voice filled the whole park. Bhi and his band play with a relaxed confidence, smiles on their faces, and playful banter. (Bhiman introduced his single “Moving to Brussels” as “a kind of Fievel Goes West kind of song.”) The highlight for me was “Guttersnipe” which shows off his vocal range and wry lyrics: “A buzzard riding the rails / I steal my meals when all else fails / I’m right at home on the line / I’m well on my way to feeling fine.” Bhiman is playing again in Boston this month–at The Great Scott, supporting The Suffers. It’ll be worth your time to get there for his set.
Ritter’s set began with “A Certain Light,” from his most recent album The Beast in Its Tracks (2013), then “Me and Jiggs” from Golden Age of Radio(2002) and “Right Moves” from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007). Most of the set was new, though. The first new song was “Young Moses,” which picks up Josh’s ability to play with stories we all think we know, imbuing them with a more pedestrian perspective that makes room for humor and joyful performance.
“Homecoming” (not sure of the name) was more somber and it seemed to me that it was where the set really coalesced. After the songs last notes, Zak Hickman pointed enthusiastically to Josh, celebrating its perfect–and I mean perfect–delivery. I don’t have lyrics or a link for this song, but I am really looking forward to getting to know it when the album is released in October. It feels like it will be one of those songs that when you hear the first notes you feel lucky that it’s been included in the set list.
“The Temptation of Adam” has always been that way for me–and Josh began to play it when the band left the stage, but couldn’t remember the lyrics and decided not to complete it. He’d mentioned that he’d been so invested in the new songs that it was sometimes hard to remember the older ones. This happens to everybody, of course, and it might have been disappointing had he not immediately played a humble, beautiful version of “Monster Ballads.”
The band came back out for some more new work. Sermon on the Rocks was recorded in New Orleans, and some of the new songs reflect some of the carefree spirit of a hole-in-the-wall music club. “Getting Ready to Get Down” and “Where The Night Goes” are both catchy, clever songs that have depth beyond their hooks, similar to “Right Moves” or “To The Dogs (Or Whoever)”.
In an interesting move, the lineup shifted again, to just Josh, Zack, and Josh Kaufman. The three have toured as an acoustic trio before and their work tonight was crisp and understatedly beautiful. They played “Folk Bloodbath” (here’s a crushing version with the Punch Brothers) and then a version of “Girl in the War” (here’s an awesome version with Barnstar!) that was punctuated by Zack’s brilliant bow work on the bass, and Josh Kaufman’s perfect accompaniment on classical guitar.
So, I went to the show with my kids, who started to fade. We took off, dancing to the car while the band came back on stage for “Joy To You Baby” which is as good a way as any to end the night.
The bottom line: I’m kicking myself for not getting tickets to the sold out album-release show at The Sinclair on October 19. For those of you going, you’re in for a treat. Church Street is going to shake.