Josh Ritter is a peculiar combination of folk, alternative blues and rock with a twinge of Americana. Most college kids probably aren’t too familiar with him, as the median age at the concert appeared to be 45. He’s set to release his seventh studio album, Bringing in the Darlings, in next February.
For a show so full of lyricism and instrumental intricacies, fist-pumping and dancing just seemed inappropriate. The State Theatre provided the perfect setting for the performance. The place is an odd combination of traditional and eccentric. The ceiling starts off with aged yet fine coffering with ensigns and crests, and then it harshly switches into a psychedelic fresco of the night sky. The seats are of a traditional red velour, seemingly fitting in the quirky theatre.
Opening alone with the softly melodic “Come and Find Me,” from his 2000 album, Golden Age of Radio, Ritter then cuts to a thumping and angsty tune with the help of a few members of The Royal City Band.
The Royal City Band is just a name for the guys that Ritter plays with. Only two members accompanied him that night, but they were still quite a sight. The men were dressed in black suits and ties except Ritter, who was sans tie. Zack Hickman, on the double bass, had a full handlebar moustache visible from 20 rows back and the sense of humor that you would expect to go along with it. Mark Erelli proved that it’s not often that you see a grown man in a suit playing the mandolin, but it happens. Whoops and catcalls rang out from the crowd as the bass beat to the melody of “Rumors.” It’s a tune usually filled with guitar, piano, drums and some brass, but it was played at the State with a blues and acoustic guitar and a double bass.
The richness of the instruments and voices worked best early in the set during “Wolves.” Josh, Zack and Mark sweetly echoed the chorus: “So long, so high!” The painful honesty was audible in their voices; their eyes were rarely open during the melodies.
This was a concert for the fans. The 23-song set was filled with both old and new material, from ballads to love songs to comical, folksy tunes. Ritter played the staples including “Kathleen,” “Harrisburg,” “Monster Ballads” and “Girl in the War.” He also previewed his upcoming album with the song “Joy to You Baby Wherever You are Tonight.”
Towards the end of the set, Ritter asked the crew to turn all the lights off, so that people could “get away with doing whatever [they] wanted.” Appropriately, he played “In the Dark,” and the crowd hauntingly “ooh-ed” along with him.
For an almost sold-out showing, the acoustic show carried a distinctive intimacy. Multiple times, the band would move in front of the microphones, making the State seem like a much smaller room. Ritter and the band belted out “Girl in the War” with their unadulterated voices while the audience gently clapped along.
Ritter broke up his set with a series of stories. Many songs were introduced with anecdotes, including ones about SkyMall and his school playground back in Moscow, I.D. He talked about his hobby of holding strange animals. The first animal he held was a koala bear: “In pictures there’s so much wisdom in those eyes, but when you’re up close it’s really not there — it’s hatred.”
Ritter interrupted “Kathleen” with a soliloquy about the places he’s visited. “Then the hellish spawn of mosquitos and bear traps where demon children run in the wild: Ithaca,” he said. “With nightly glow in the dark frisbees and hacky sacks, and fumes of marijuana up and down pedestrian walkways, which reminds me: please send Fruit Roll-Ups and Fritos.” He got a few good chuckles out of the crowd.
The acoustic show at the State, the last stop on the tour, was bursting with energy. Ritter was constantly moving — jumping up and down between songs, bouncing while playing and singing while on his knees. At one point he began to howl like a coyote and the audience howled back for what became an uncomfortably long amount of time.
Though there were only three pieces on stage at a time, they carried the power of a full band. Ritter played and transitioned so quickly and smoothly that it sounded like he had two more guitarists backing him up. The bass echoed throughout the theater while the mandolin and acoustic guitar serenaded harmoniously. As a longtime fan who’s never been able to make it to a show, I found this acoustic finale fantastically odd.