Josh Ritter at Birchmere: Going for the Drama
Josh Ritter's well-spoken Americana has worked its way up from his Idaho anonymity to a much larger fan base -- on Wednesday night, he performed at a sold-out Birchmere. It hasn't been a short journey: Ritter has released four albums since 1999 (and the use of his song "Come and Find Me" on the HBO series "Six Feet Under" certainly didn't hurt).
Ritter's energetic folk-rock songs struck a balance between earnestness and playfulness as his bright acoustic guitar and brisk tempos smoothed out the intensity in his voice. Despite his ear-to-ear grin on the bouncy "Good Man," many of Ritter's subjects weren't quite so cheery. One of his most striking numbers, "Girl in the War," captivatingly envisioned an anti-war conversation between Saint Peter and Saint Paul with a forceful melody and dramatic instrumentation, as Ritter's guitar was accentuated by his three-piece backing band.
Ritter toned down that energy for some of his more somber pieces, capturing the passion of "Thin Blue Flame" and the melancholy of "Best for the Best" with tender restraint. He chose to perform "Wings" without stage lights, the darkness giving the song the intensity of a ghost story. The late addition of a droning organ and bass guitar sounded like a plane taking off, further adding to the song's goose-bump-inducing creepiness. Most memorably, Ritter closed the night with an acoustic, off-mike performance of "Lawrence, KS." Although the audience had risen to its feet, everyone stood still and silent, hanging on to every unamplified sound.
-- Catherine P. Lewis