Photographer Rich Orris (all photos in this post are his) noted, early in the Josh Ritter show at The Orange Peel, that Ritter is one musician who makes everything instantly better. And it’s kind of true. Not that Ritter has the power to mend a broken heart or heal the sick or anything like that. But the way he takes the stage with a huge grin, the way he looks so genuinely happy to be there, the way he insists it’s going to be such a fun night and the way he seems to get more energetic, more smiley, more raucously happy as the show goes on — if that doesn’t cure what ails you, it’ll at least make you forget for a couple of hours.
Ritter started the show solo with “Idaho.” When he reached the line, “Ain’t no wolf can sing like me,” a girl in the audience shouted “that’s right,” which made Ritter grin through his lyrics. It was also the first of many wolf references. (He later performed “Wolves,” with a long solo howl, and led the audience on a participatory howl in the rocking and percussive “Rattling Locks.”)
The Royal City Band (bassist Zack Hickman, guitarist Austin Nevins, Sam Kassirer on keys and drummer Liam Hurley) came onstage one at a time during “Southern Pacifica” and finally launched as a complete entity with a big drum sound and heavy keys on “Rumors.” Surrounded by smoke machine clouds and a huge all-seeing eye backdrop (the band’s merch booth included a limited-edition glow-in-the-dark poster of the same design), Ritter pushed his voice to a raspy edge on the verse, “The music’s never loud enough.”
That particular song is one that Ritter has been playing — with full bombast — for years. And yet, each time he’s like a kid who just started his first garage band and cranked the volume to 10. Not that he and his band perform like novices. The show is crisply professional from start to finish. Every stop is clean, every nuance is polished. But there’s the energy of newness, of discovery, of the first flush of success.
Which is probably partly why people love Ritter. Because he’s not jaded. He’s cool in his not-trying-to-be-coolness; he’s bolstered by genuine enthusiasm. And people respond. The Orange Peel was nearly packed on a Monday, a fact which Ritter noted several times, thanking the crowd for coming out. (Even though he’d just sold out two nights at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. And remember he’s touring a breakup album. But Ritter can pull that off.) He’s also smart and funny, reeling off a crazy pseudo-historical myth about the Orange Peel: “This thousand-year-old venue was build on a much-older temple. We’re not sure what. We’re not even sure oranges were involved.”
Later in the show, during a solo break, Ritter dedicated the song “Galahad” to local bookstore Malaprop’s (where two years ago he gave a reading for his novel, Bright’s Passage). “Galahad” is an interesting choice for Malaprop’s — look up the lyrics for a laugh.
Ritter sang five songs from his just-released album, The Beast in its Tracks. Which is, yes, a breakup album. But there’s also a love story in there, and a lot of hope. (Read more about it here.) The musician (and/or his management) made the interesting choice to give away a free download of the album with each concert ticket, a seemingly dubious move until he played that album’s single, “Joy To You Baby,” and the audience sang along. The room was flooded with such a gorgeously twilit and hopeful feel. Calm anticipation.
That calm was a rare moment in an evening filled with electricity and animation. At times, Ritter pogoed around the stage; he played air drums in “Rattling Locks” and shimmied his way through “Right Moves.” That song’s question, “Am I making all the right moves?” is probably the most rhetorical of the show.
So, calm moments were few but sing-along moments were many — “Folk Bloodbath” brought one, and “Kathleen” another. During the latter, Ritter switched guitars mid-song and launched into a rap interlude of sorts in which he recited a letter from a fictional member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who, sick of the explorers, had made his own discovery of a town filled with vegetarians. A place where, “everybody plays Frisbee golf. Everybody has a dog.”
After a short break, the band returned for an encore. Standing in a slice of orange light, Ritter played the achingly sweet “The Temptation of Adam” and then, for the finale, raised the energy level to a fever pitch with “To the Dogs or Whoever.”
It’s worth noting that the set (see below) covered at least a decade of songs and every one stood up beside the others. As a collection they showcased Ritter’s staggering ability as not just a performer but as a songwriter, too. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait two more years before he makes it back to Asheville.
1. Idaho (solo), Animal Years
2. Southern Pacifica, So Runs the World Away
3. Rumors, The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter
4. A Certain Light, The Beast in its Tracks
5. Hopeful, The Beast in its Tracks
6. Lillian, Egypt, Animal Years
7. The Curse, So Runs the World Away
8. Joy To You Baby, The Beast in its Tracks
9. New Lover, The Beast in its Tracks
10. Folk Bloodbath, So Runs the World Away
11. Galahad (solo), To the Yet Unknowing World (EP)
12. Snow is Gone (solo), Hello Starling
13. Wings, Hello Starling
14. Evil Eye, The Beast in its Tracks
15. Rattling Locks, So Runs the World Away
16. Wolves, Animal Years
17. Right Moves, The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter
18. Kathleen, Hello Starling
1. The Temptation of Adam, The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter
2. To the Dogs or Whoever, The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter