Josh Ritter, St. Stephen’s Church, London
When you have a loyal following like Josh Ritter does, it comes as no surprise that his only UK date on this tour, would sell out and quickly! On the evening of the show, many fans had arrived before the doors opened which meant that the queue snaked for quite some way along the street. Some unlucky souls who hadn’t managed to buy tickets walked the queue asking to buy any spares but from where I stood, no one was giving up a ticket – a Ritter show is not to be missed!
This tour, billed as ‘Works In Progress Shows’ includes a handful of dates during which Ritter, playing solo, road tests some new songs. Having last released an album in 2015, SERMON ON THE ROCKS, it seems that Ritter has material for his next one and I, like many, always look forward to hearing what he’s going to do next.
St. Stephen’s Church in the Shepherd’s Bush area of London caters for a mixed and vibrant community with the church itself dating back to 1850. It has beautiful stained glass windows carved furniture and pews. I found myself sitting in the fourth row, next to a fan who had travelled from Manchester and judging by overheard snippets of conversation, others had travelled far and wide to be at the show. No real surprise there.
Rapturous applause and cheers greeted Ritter who smiled from ear to ear as he started with a crowd pleaser – ‘Monster Ballads’. With just an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, he played a few more including the classic ‘Me and Jiggs’ before clarifying that many of the songs, he’d be playing tonight, are new and asked the audience to let him know if there were any we didn’t like. He said that he’d got his red pen with him!
Now I’m not entirely sure if I’ve got the title right but the first new song was ‘Old Black Magic’ whose title is reminiscent of the much-covered standard from the 1940’s. Ritter’s song is certainly a toe tapper and it was a good one with which to introduce his new material. He followed with four more new songs before performing ‘Henrietta, Indiana’ which was greeted by huge cheers prompting Ritter to respond with ‘awesome!’ There were a few more ‘awesomes’ during the night.
More new songs, interspersed with old favourites, followed and to judge by the reception, the next album is going to be a winner. Some of Ritter’s recent writing has been influenced by his interest in cowboy songs and it was amusing to note that as he finished singing ‘Train Go By’ the stained glass windows were lit by a flashing blue police light (complete with siren) as if right on cue. The timing was perfect!
Ritter straddles folk and Americana; his trademark intelligent lyrics, thoughtful narratives that paint pictures and tell whole life stories in a matter of minutes, remain to the fore. Some of the new material sounded autobiographical and it seemed to me that he’s still able to mine the darker side of relationships to craft tender songs.
Before bowing out with ‘Snow Is Gone’ he played Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ – a cover he’d recorded on a tribute album to Cohen, back in 2008. It was a fitting tribute to someone who has no doubt been a great influence, alongside Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. That said, Ritter is very much his own man and it is a testament to his relationship with his fan base that he wanted to share the new material, in a live setting, to get the reaction of the people who have supported him throughout his career.
Two and quarter hours, twenty-six songs, sheer joy – Ritter is on top of his game and I eagerly await the next album. He’s back in December and hopefully for more than just one UK date.