Josh Ritter's Songs Speak for Themselves

The well-dressed  musician in an unadorned solo performance at the Birchmere.
The well-dressed musician in an unadorned solo performance at the Birchmere. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Josh Ritter bounded onto the Birchmere stage Sunday night alone and wearing a striped, cream-colored, three-button suit and an open-collar dress shirt. Before performing a note, the ruddy-bearded Idaho troubadour noted his cosmopolitan threads and asked: "Are you wowed?" The capacity crowd roared.

Ritter grinned, then closed his eyes as he began fingerpicking his acoustic guitar and singing an emotionally brittle song, "Best for the Best," in a hushed, plaintive voice.

"Once I knew a girl in the hard, hard times / She made me a shirt out of fives and dimes," he whispered. "Now she's gone, but when I wear it she crosses my mind / And if the best is for the best, then the best is unkind."

The audience was so still and silent that you could actually hear ice shifting inside a plastic tumbler across the room. When the song concluded, Ritter exhaled before casting a furtive glance at the whiskey glass sitting next to him.

Performing solo acoustic takes a certain amount of nerve and, perhaps, some self-fortification. Every artistic imperfection is on full display, and Ritter flashed a few on the second night of his U.S. solo tour: A missed lyric in the opening verse of "Me & Jiggs"; a detuned guitar during a cover of Buddy Holly's "Learning the Game"; a problematic version of "You Don't Make It Easy Babe," which Ritter abandoned after twice getting the giggles.

Otherwise, aside from a cliched lyric or two (fewer Mark Twain references, please), Ritter had no need to worry. Over the past half-dozen years, the 30-year-old artist has risen from the expansive middle class of American singer-songwriters to a position as one of his generation's brightest talents. An evocative poet with a sharp observational eye and a striking sense of maturity, he writes rich, nuanced narratives about romance, Americana and the like. (He's also a fine guitar player, particularly when he's fingerpicking in the style of John Fahey.)

Recently, Ritter has emerged as an eloquent and effective protest singer, as well -- an important new voice in musical liberalism. While everybody from Pearl Jam and Neil Young to John Legend and John Mayer recorded antiwar songs last year, none was as striking as Ritter's twin diatribes, "Girl in the War" and "Thin Blue Flame."

On Ritter's superlative 2006 album, "The Animal Years," the two songs were treated with ambitious arrangements and instrumentation. But working without accompaniment Sunday (and at a second Birchmere show last night), Ritter stripped the songs to their cores, which only added to their power. That was especially true of "Thin Blue Flame," an apocalyptic stream-of-consciousness rant that transformed from a simmering, sweeping epic to a standout poem that just so happened to be set to a strummed acoustic guitar.

The lonesome ballad "Idaho" was also stunning live, with Ritter's rustic tenor soaring over a faint guitar. Performed in complete darkness ("Idaho in the winter time," he joked), it was truly haunting.

Some songs, however, suffered in the solo-acoustic setting: "Wolves" fell flat without the studio version's galloping drums and piano lines, and "Monster Ballads" missed its churchy organ backbone and shuffling rhythm.

Mostly, though, Ritter found solo success, singing songs both old and new. There was "Kathleen," a hopeful, yearning love song from 2003's "Hello Starling" album in which Ritter sings, "All the other girls here are stars / You are the northern lights."

And there was a new song about love. Sort of: The tune, which Ritter didn't introduce by name, was about a blooming romance in a bunker. Loaded with allusions to war, it was a delightfully Dylanesque mix of cynicism and wit and should be a showpiece on Ritter's next studio album -- whenever and wherever it comes out.

Ritter's record label, V2, recently closed for business. "Everybody was fired," he said, "including me." But in his sharp Sunday suit, Ritter sure looked employable. More important, he sounded as much. Label reps, take note.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company