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Review Fri Apr 25 2014
Midway through Josh Ritter's set last Wednesday night at the City Winery, he mentioned that he'd gone to a Neil Young concert the night before, which was, as Ritter put it, "a curious choice" for a songwriter to make the night before their own show. Despite his modesty, one thing Ritter's show undoubtedly had over the previous evening was the intimacy of the venue and the attentiveness of the crowd; the audience at the Winery was hanging on each note. Ritter had promoted his two Chicago gigs as an opportunity to try out new material in front of audiences, and made good on the promise in spades. The new songs could be considered "more of the same" in the best possible sense of the phrase; they were bittersweet folk songs with well-crafted melodies and biting, beautiful lyrical passages. From what I could tell, the material traveled further down the road discovered on 2013's The Beast In Its Tracks, continuing to trace the unspoken oddities of romantic love.
After a few songs with barely a word of banter, Ritter thanked the crowd and noted that these concerts were also an opportunity to break out tunes he doesn't often play. With that, he made my night by whispering the opening lyric of "Thin Blue Flame" from 2006's The Animal Years. An onslaught of lyrical imagery, the track is one of Ritter's greatest songs and evocative of Dylan in his 60s word-drunk prime. Ritter fudged a number of lines, but when there's a song's worth of information contained within every couplet, there was plenty to feast on even if it was only 90% there. Ritter followed "Thin Blue Flame" with the song "Why" from the 2012 EP Bringing In The Darlings. It began with the line, "why can't you try to be happy," undercutting the pathos with a pivot towards winking humor. He has a flair for crafting legitimately funny moments into his songs, and I found myself laughing anew at jokes I've heard many times before on record.
Despite this, my favorite new song of the night was the darkest of the bunch, tentatively titled "Devil in the Eye". A familial saga soaked in booze and blood, it's set during the economic demise of the factory town Henrietta, Indiana, and ends with the main character's kin being the harbinger of some fateful violence. Ritter excels with the darker topics because the contrast between the lyrics and his boyish optimism when performing creates an unsettling tension. This high wire act was on display when he played "The Temptation of Adam", from 2007's The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter; what seems, on the surface, to be a sweet, albeit awkward story of a romance between two employees at a nuclear missile silo introduces the possibility of global apocalypse as a punch line at the song's denouement.
Late in the main set, he performed two songs that succinctly illustrated the dual paths his recent work has taken. He first played "Joy To You Baby", the last song written for Beast In Its Tracks. It's a stellar breakup song, although to sum it up with so pithy a description doesn't do it justice. It's an optimistic view of a future that stretches past love's dissolution; at the show, Ritter described the song's inspiration, as he sat on a roof overlooking the New York skyline and felt at peace enough with his own history to take a step forward. It was a poignant moment, but Ritter again undercut the melancholy with the new song "Cry Softly", a rambunctious tale of the narrator's endless escapades of "whiskey drinking while chasing vodka blondes." He even said during the song's bridge that he could hear a barroom piano line in his head, thinking of a possible arrangement for the song on the fly.
The evening ended fittingly with "Snow is Gone", with a chorus that spring-hungry Chicagoans were ready to belt out with glee and well-earned relief. Ritter has a number of tour dates scattered throughout the summer, but I'm most excited to see how his new songs will coalesce on his next record. Ritter's last four albums have been captivating, and each has introduced a new wrinkle into his music, whether it was the rock sensibility of Historical Conquests or the epic sweep of 2010's So Runs The World Away. It's too early to know what new wrinkle these songs will expose, but they nonetheless acted as an enticing glimpse of what's next.