Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Josh Ritter

Live: Glee Club, Birmingham

by Ian Mann

May 12, 2006


This was a great show. I've not enjoyed a rock gig so much for a long time and it's a good feeling to discover an artist with genuine talent.

This was the first night of a short UK tour promoting Ritter’s superb new album “The Animal Years” which has drawn the plaudits of the critics and should be his most successful album so far.

A capacity audience at Birmingham’s Glee Club saw Nicolai Dunger open the show with a short set of five songs.  He proved to be a competent guitarist and a powerful singer, although the material was rather pedestrian by comparison with what was to come later. “Tell Me Mama” and “When The Devil Wants To Wrestle” added blues and gospel elements to his folk stylings and were probably the most successful songs. The crowd were polite and attentive but an attempt to encourage audience participation was probably ill advised.

Ritter and his band played a lengthy, value for money set drawing mainly on the new album but also incorporating songs from previous releases, including the albums “The Golden Age Of Radio” and “Hello Starling”.

The set opened quietly with “Idaho” featuring just Ritter’s guitar and his high clear voice. He immediately commanded attention and has a real stage presence. The keyboards of Sam Kassirer were added unobtrusively with bassist Zak Hickman joining in towards the close of the song.

Drummer Dave Hingerty brought the band up to full strength for the following “Girl In The War”. It seemed to take a couple of numbers for the band to play themselves in, understandable on the opening night of the tour, but they ultimately proved themselves to be a tight and cohesive unit. (Not sure about the “Dove From Above” line in the lyrics but I guess they don’t get Reeves and Mortimer in the States).

As for Ritter he was in fine voice from the start. Although adopting a hoarser tone for the rockier material his singing in the main seemed pure, conversational and effortless. A fine sound mix meant that it was easy to pick up the lyrics and it is here that his greatest strength lies. Initially influenced by Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” there is still much of Dylan in his style. With his tousled hair he even looks a little like Dylan and the extensive use of organ is a shared musical characteristic.

Both men came from isolated parts of America and their love of the grandeur of the American landscape and the legends that grew up around it is apparent in their writing. Ritter’s use of language is superb conjuring up the vast skies and deserts of his native Idaho. Like Dylan he alludes to historical events, to the legends of the Old West and to Biblical imagery. Add this to melodies that sound familiar even the first time you hear them and you have a potent musical brew. It’s no wonder he has such a fanatical following.

“In The Dark”, the epic “Wolves” and “Good Man” followed - all great songs from the new album.

“Me and Jiggs” from “Golden Age” throws the influence of Bruce Springsteen into the mix whereas “Wings” from “Hello Starling” recalls the apocalyptic, biblical visions of Leonard Cohen. However, Ritter is much more than the sum of his influences. He has borrowed from Dylan, Springsteen and Cohen, maybe Van Morrison too but still adds something of his own. Like them and also Woody Guthrie, Bruce Cockburn and Tom Waits he is a great poet and storyteller but with his own tale to tell.

Between songs Ritter proves to be a charming and amusing interlocutor but there is a serious side too. He quotes Mark Twain “Always be loyal to your country, only be loyal to your government if they deserve it”. I think that’s the gist of it. Throughout “The Animal Years” there is a sense of Ritter’s love of the American landscape and it’s people but a deep distrust of the way it’s being run and of the people in power. To underline the point he later fires a broadside at Dick Cheney.

It’s a similar political stance to Britain’s own Oysterband who “love this land and its music yet hate how it’s ruled and a lot of what it stands for”. In case you think I digress too far there’s a line in an Oysterband song “and Jesus walks in Idaho”. Neat eh? Seriously they’re a great band too, with intelligent lyrics. Check them out.

Ritter continues to storm through his set. Other songs include the Dylanish “Best Of The Best”,“Kathleen” with it’s surging Hammond sound and “Monster Ballads”.

The epic, sprawling, poetic “Thin Blue Flame” is quite awesome and features Ritter on electric guitar.

“Snow Is Gone” closes the set in an outpouring of joy. The encore includes “Harrisburg” (a nod to his Pennsylvania roots) which seems to combine the influences of both Dylan and Springsteen.

The charismatic Ritter has no problem getting the audience out of their seats and singing by the end of the set.

Afterwards he takes time to talk to his adoring public. He seems to be genuinely knocked out by the response of his British audience. It’s not the usual perfunctory signing session, he’s got time to talk to everybody at length, even first timers like me and comes across as a genuinely nice guy. I hate to think how long he was there for and maybe he won’t be quite as open for the whole tour.

There the similarity with Dylan ends. I doubt if he’s ever been referred to as a “nice guy” in his life.

This was a great show. I’ve not enjoyed a rock gig so much for a long time and it’s a good feeling to discover an artist with genuine talent. Ritter’s star will continue to rise and next time he tours the UK it will probably be in larger, less intimate venues. Catch him this time round if you can.

blog comments powered by Disqus