Originally from Idaho, Josh Ritter recorded his self-titled debut album at the age of just 21. Since then he’s gone on to be one of the most popular and respected Americana artists around, including being named among the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters by Paste Magazine. He released his tenth album, Fever Breaks – produced by Jason Isbell – this April and is currently out on tour across the UK in support of the record, including two shows at London’s Union Chapel.
Ritter arrived on stage around 8.45 with his four-piece band to huge cheers for the audience. After thanking them for coming out, he promised ‘we’re gonna have an amazing night’ before launching into the dreamlike Idaho, from his 2006 album The Animal Years. The stripped back approach to the song put the emphasis firmly on his distinctive vocals and the vivid imagery of the lyrics, and he showed off some impressive long notes which were delivered effortlessly. The crowd burst into cheers as the song drew to a close and it was clear we were in for a very special evening.
Throughout the set Ritter drew on songs from across his career, showing off the range of styles and influences in his music. From the driving small town life tale Me & Jiggs with its classic rock sound and quick delivery, to the folk-influenced intro of On The Water, bluesy vibes of Losing Battle and the rollicking, jangly Ground Don’t Want Me, he displayed great versatility and fantastic musicianship throughout. As a relatively new listener it was a great introduction to his sound, and judging from the crowd’s reactions – many of whom could be seen swaying in their seats and tapping their toes throughout – there were plenty of old favourites in there alongside songs from the new record.
Ritter is known for his skill as a storyteller, and that was definitely on show last night. The atmospheric Henrietta, Indiana told the tale of a small town family wrecked by alcoholism, with Ritter’s rapid-fire delivery taking on an edge of menace against the clipped guitar, whilst the dark, unsettling Torch Committee was given weight by his great control throughout. Meanwhile, Blazing Highway Home highlighted Ritter’s ability to capture emotions, and new song The Gospel Of Mary provided a moving yet powerful commentary on the refugee crisis. Ritter has a real skill in crafting characters so vivid that they leap out of the songs, and it’s not hard to see why he’s received so much acclaim as a songwriter.
That said, there was also plenty of fun to be had too, with the joyful Thunderbolt’s Goodnight giving Ritter a chance to show off his guitar-playing skills, the pounding piano-led Homecoming getting the crowd clapping along, and the pounding Lantern seeing him leap about the stage and jam with his bandmates. It’s a cliche to say that musicians love being on stage, but with Ritter you really feel that he completely comes alive up there and it makes for a really compelling performance. He also came across as incredibly warm and witty, cracking jokes when things went wrong and encouraging the audience to be kinder to each other in dark times.
For me the highlight of the show was the acoustic section midway through, featuring Ritter and bass player Zach. They opened with Annabelle Lee, a mournful, subdued tale of a sunken ship and its adventurous captain. Ritter’s soft vocals and the song’s narrative completely drew you in and you could genuinely have heard a pin drop in the room, before the crowd erupted into cheers and applause. He followed that with a lively rendition of Joy To You Baby which had a lovely sense of brightness and was impossible not to feel uplifted by. I also loved the moment when all five members crammed into the Union Chapel pulpit to perform When Will I Be Changed, which really added to the spiritual feel of the song and showed off how well their voices blend together. The light, playful Old Old Fashioned was another high point, crammed full of lovely little details and with a lovely sense of comfort about it.
Ritter closed the main part of his set with a passionate performance of Getting Ready To Get Down. The upbeat, lively song had a really celebratory feel to it and it was great to see both Ritter and the audience getting into it and feeding off each other’s energy. It was so much fun to watch and he was rewarded with the first standing ovation of the evening from the crowd. He followed that with The Curse, a delicate, meandering song with a waltz melody and a fairytale narrative that was full of twists and turns and had an absolutely heartbreaking ending. For me the two songs showed off both sides of his sound really well and perfectly summed up the show as a whole.
After thanking the crowd for an ‘amazing night’, Ritter and his band briefly left the stage before he returned to perform a solo acoustic version of All Some Kind Of Dream, from his current album. I loved the upbeat feel of the song, which provided a great contrast to the fiery lyrics and their commentary on the current political situation in the US. It was a really inspiring and hopeful note to end the set on and the crowd responded by giving him yet another standing ovation. He clearly really loves playing for the UK audience and the feeling is definitely mutual.
Overall Josh Ritter delivered a jam-packed set that covered a huge range of musical styles and was full of fun and energy as well as brilliant storytelling and characters. He showed his skill as a lyricist and musician – as well as that of his band – throughout, and produced an absolutely fantastic performance to boot. It was a really enjoyable evening that had me laughing, smiling and crying and one of my favourite live performances of the year so far. If you ever get the chance to see him live, grab it with both hands; I promise you won’t regret it!
Set list: 1. Idaho 2. Me And Jiggs 3. On The Water 4. Ground Don’t Want Me 5. Henrietta, Indiana 6. Thunderbolt’s Goodnight 7. Torch Committee 8. Lantern 9. Annabelle Lee 10. Joy To You Baby 11. The Gospel Of Mary 12. Girl In The War 13. Homecoming 14. When Will I Be Changed 15. Old Old Fashioned 16. Oh Lord, Pt. 3 17. Blazing Highway Home 18. Losing Battle 19. Getting Ready To Get Down 20. The Curse 21. All Some Kind Of Dream Performance date: 23rd July 2019
See Josh Ritter on tour in the UK and Ireland this July:
Wednesday 24 July – Oran Mor, Glasgow
Thursday 25 July – Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
Saturday 27 July – National Concert Hall, Dublin
Sunday 28 July – National Concert Hall, Dublin