Josh Ritter Conquers With a Smile And a Song

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Springsteen comparisons are legit: Idaho neo-folkie Josh Ritter is the real deal. But whereas the Boss can't produce a note without squeezing his face into a mask of constipated anguish, Ritter can't sing without smiling. Or so it seemed at the 9:30 club Tuesday night, where a literally hopping-glad Ritter jumped, jived and wailed his hyperactive way through a buoyant 20-song, 100-minute set.

"This is going to be really, really fun!" he squeaked early on. Dylanesque? More like Elmoesque -- but he wasn't wrong.

Opening with "Moons," a 51-second epic from his new "Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter," the singer slammed straight into a double-timed "To the Dogs or Whoever." By the time "Wolves" careened seamlessly into "Rumors," Ritter and the four players sharing his stage (there was also a horn section that came and went as required) had proven themselves a band rather than a cast of session players surrounding a freshly anointed star. Rough-hewn, ramshackle barnburners alternated with delicate acoustic performances all night. On the latter, Ritter's command of the crowd was so assured you could actually hear receipt-printers chirping annoyingly from behind the bars.

Cuts from the new album and 2006's "The Animal Years" dominated, though earlier concert staples "Harrisburg," "Kathleen" and the set-closing "Lawrence, KS" all elicited lyric-mouthing reverence from the die-hards in the audience.

There were snags: "The Temptation of Adam," a tale of blooming pre-apocalyptic romance, was a bit too fragile for Ritter to negotiate after 45 minutes of loud, loose rock-and-roll. "Girl in the War," too, disappointed in a leaden, big-rawk arrangement ill-suited to the song's inclusive humanity.

-- Chris Klimek

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