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Review Fri Apr 25 2014

Josh Ritter Charms The Crowd at City Winery, 4/23

Ritterreviewphoto.jpg

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.

 

Savannah / April 28, 2014 4:07 PM

"Why can't you try to be happy?" is the opening line from "Why" off Ritter's 2012 EP Bringing in the Darlings. He does like to reuse lines, though, so I would be interested to know whether this was actually a new song building on the 2012 track.

Pat Donachie / April 29, 2014 12:52 PM

Thanks for letting me know, Savannah! Turns out you are right, the song in question was in fact "Why" from Bringing In The Darlings. We've made the correction in the article.

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Pitchfork Music Festival Wed Jul 16 2014

Our Picks for Pitchfork Fest 2014

By Transmission Staff

Come on and see what we're most excited to hear with our staff's picks for the 2014 Pitchfork Music Festival sets you won't want to miss.

Read this feature »

Blogroll

  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
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Abbey Pub
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Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
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  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Atavistic
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Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
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Groove Distribution
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Hozac
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Events

Wed Jul 30 2014
Oneida & CAVE @ Empty Bottle

Wed Jul 30 2014
Nelarusky ft. Twin Shadow @ Metro

Thu Jul 31 2014
Spin's Lollapalooza Kick Off Party with Interpol, Gemini Club, Wildcat! Wildcat!

Thu Jul 31 2014
School of Rock Allstars @ Beat Kitchen

Sat Aug 2 2014
Fiesta Del Sol @ Pilsen Neighborhood

Sun Aug 3 2014
Great Midwest Uke Fest @ Chief O'Neill's

Mon Aug 4 2014
Maps & Atlases and Wooden Shjips @ Downtown Sound

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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