Photos: Bríd O’Donovan
“Euphoric” isn’t a word I use often, but consistently through the years it has crept up when it comes to discussing Josh Ritter. Imbuing each performance with a wealth of energy and positivity, the audience sees an artist who genuinely loves to play, unfettered by any cynicism or poses. He’s just a talented man doing what he does well and enjoying every minute of it. His skill lies in filtering old song stylings through his own romantic take on the world. There’s a sweep to the material that tackles many themes, from angels and faith to atoms and folk, via interludes concerning Pharaohs and bloodbaths and myriad other concerns.
Last Saturday’s gig was unique in the fact that it acted as a hybrid between Ritter the musician and Ritter the prose writer, as a great portion of the show was dedicated to him conducting readings from the novel he published last year. The book in question “Bight’s Passage” is a surreal treatise on faith – his protagonist is given advice by an angel in the form of a horse and this blending of the absurd and the divine is a running theme through his work. Too often the humour clearly evident in the writing is overlooked when set next to his more earnest pieces but it’s still a key part of his style and that good nature was in abundance here.
Through rambling anecdotes, which gave interesting insights into his creative process, we saw a humble, self-effacing man with a real gift for creating whole worlds in his songs, the smooth employment of evocative imagery being quite dense but never cluttered. The readings concerned angels, man/woman relationships and the beauty of memory and could almost be seen as the formula for his entire aesthetic. Josh couches his odes to love and humanity, very often in imagined settings, like we’re seeing the past but one that is ever so slightly nudged to a fantastical left and I think this distancing also allows him to be affecting without becoming maudlin. Even songs which use “I” are given this story-like sheen allowing them to be emotional, even when not being directly confessional.
Like the stories which preceded them the readings had a nervous air, the feeling that he was moving outside of his comfort zone, naked without the music for decoration. But a good storyteller needs no adornment and he gave a spirited account of his literary work.
One need only sample a handful of his songs to realise that narrative abounds in any case. Take ‘The Curse’ which had a beautiful airing here, the story of a centuries old Pharaoh returning to life and conducting a romance with the Doctor who unearths him. Despite the unreality, it is a moving study of fleeting love and is arguably the saddest thing the man has written. Its waltz structure, ebbing and flowing, echoes many of the conceits within the song, the see-saw rhythm of the boat that brings the central character to New York, the passing of time, the receding of affection.
‘Girl in the War’ is a tender condemnation of some of the questionable events in recent US history but even when skirting the political, Josh does so in an understated, elegiac way.
While down-tempo in his work does not mean downbeat, he does know when it’s time to rouse the crowd with something celebratory and ‘Snow is Gone’ is as clear a clarion call to optimism as anything and was a fine way to end the set. While a few other songs were played – crowd favourite ‘Kathleen’ spurred on by requests from the audience, a new song entitled ‘New Lover’ making an immediate impact with its jaunty nature, and a surprinsgly cheeky “b-side” in ‘Galahad’ – one must admit the set was a bit short but considering the novel (in both senses of the word) nature of the show, this was understandable. Sure we would have loved a few more songs but the balance was maintained admirably and the joy of the whole thing meant that it remained thoroughly a Josh Ritter show.
Branching into a new medium seems to have only enhanced his writing skills and I’ll be interested to see how this plays into any new material both on record and off. A steady, engaging talent who has always been improving with each new phase, let any critics churlish enough to criticize him be thrown to the dogs, or you know, whoever.