Josh Ritter shines in return to Boston

A review of Josh Ritter at the Orpheum Theatre on May 21, 2010

, Staff Writer

Josh Ritter has played everything from open mic nights to Boston Symphony Orchestra collaborations here in Boston, his one-time hometown. Friday night at the Orpheum, backed somewhere in between by the trusty Royal City Band, Ritter put all of his many talents on display in a multi-faceted showcase of his superb new album So Runs the World Away.

Things began with “Change of Time”, the opening track off Ritter’s sixth album and one that starts easy but builds into a monumental crescendo. The arc of the song mirrored that of the night as a whole, and the restrained beauty of “Southern Pacifica” garnering appreciative applause from the seated crowd as it followed “Time”. “Rumors”, stripped of it’s horn section, let the cohesiveness of the band show through the spaces in the groove. By the end of the song the Royal City Band was making a racket with enigmatic bass player Zack Hickman leading the way.

Ritter, who went through a prolonged creative dry spell between The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter and his current disc, looked ecstatic to be playing the wide variety of songs that resulted from his breakthrough. “Folk Bloodbath” was somber, serious and a touch prettier than the outstanding album version, with Ritter telling an old blues tragedy over Hickman’s bowed bass and the band’s warm vocal harmonies. Ritter, visibly delighted, thanked the crowd saying, “This is a real hometown show.”

The crowd’s energy increased as their familiarity with the material picked up (So Runs was released a month ago), which meant that “Monster Ballads” and “Good Man” received warm ovations. Somerville native Sam Kassirer decorated “Monster Ballads” with a gentle piano solo and the crowd added a big clap along to “Good Man”, which was bouncy and fun. The big, bad, bruising “Rattling Chains” was not bouncy at all but plenty of fun as nearly every band member started banging drum sticks in addition to making their own instruments scream and squeal while Ritter jumped on the organ and did his best Jack White impression.

A slight rant about the connection between existentialism and nature television programs preceded “The Curse”, a heartbreaking song about an ill-fated love affair between an archaeologist and a mummy that Ritter calls the linchpin of the new album. A nice and easy version of “Lark” segued nicely into Ritter’s solo acoustic session, which began with an absolutely smoldering version of Springsteen’s “The River” that prompted one concertgoer to scream, “That was awesome!” well after the rest of the applause died down. Ritter then asked to have all the lights in the venue turned off for an unamplified “In the Dark”. Hearing the venue sing along sweetly in one voice was a special moment, and commanding a crowd as big as the Orpheum was a testament to the esteem in which Ritter’s fans hold him.

The frontman rewarded his audience’s patience by plugging in and ripping into an outsized version of “Kathleen” that sparked big cheers and an even bigger singalong. The Royal City Band was clearly prepared for the hit as they walked back onstage and absolutely nailed every aspect of the song. That confidence extended into “Right Moves”, the song that finally got the crowd out of their seats and dancing. Ritter kept the momentum going with an absolutely gorgeous “Girl In the War”, ending it by saying, “This is awesome! I want to thank Club Passim.”

Ritter then invited Kassirer’s mother on stage for a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee” which served as an epigraph to Ritter’s “Another New World”. The haunting saga of a shipwreck was aided by swirling expressionist instrumentation and concluded with cataclysmic ferocity as the rhythm section pounded away and the rest of the band strummed furiously. The power of the dark musical journey was transfered into the joyous release of old favorite “Harrisburg”, which was improved by a hilarious Hickman tag of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”.

By this time the aforementioned crescendo began to crest, and drummer Liam Hurley began to trigger the electronic sounds that signaled “Lantern”. The quickly accepted new song provided the ideal launching pad for the rush of the cymbal heavy “To the Dogs or Whoever” as band and crowd alike made it plain how much fun they were having. In a great bit of showmanship the entire band froze in place just before the last hit, holding their positions as the lights faded before finishing the main set off with a bang. The band quickly returned for “Snow is Gone” and the celebration continued right on along.

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