I think about my early concert-going experiences pretty often. Music was somehow much simpler to me then — if it struck some kind of positive emotional chord, I was in love. I wasn’t looking for a deeper meaning, for serious musical prowess, even for some kind of striking creativity. If a song made me feel good, that was more than enough; I wasn’t paying attention to chord progressions.
We all have to grow up. But sometimes, I find myself overwhelmed with the heart swell of first music love. Josh Ritter’s show at the Fox Theater in Oakland was one of those times. The sheer joy with which he performs, combined with his decided musical skill and creative song writing, makes his live performance something of a perfect union between my gut reaction music past and my more-informed music writer present.
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts of this show. Ritter played for close to two hours, alternating between solo performances and room-shaking renditions backed by his Royal City Band. He spent much time covering ground from his new album, The Beast In Its Tracks, peppered with memorable songs from his extensive back catalogue (including the excellent “So Runs The World Away,” one of my top picks of 2010). As a performer, Ritter is captivating — he fell to his knees multiple times, to catapult his powerful vocals throughout the room without the aid of a microphone, to curl himself more closely around his guitar, or to pay homage to his talented band members. He engaged the audience in multiple sing-a-longs, played a tune with all of the stage lights off, and inspired a standing ovation.
These are the makings of a great show, to be sure. But Ritters’ incredible, joyful energy elevates his performance to new heights. He jokes with the audience on an intimate level that transforms the grand Fox into a coffee shop open mic night. He repeatedly commented on how stunning the theater itself was, and how honored and grateful he was to be there. What’s more, he’s unfailingly genuine — his mile-wide grin lit the stage, as he pogoed up and down to the beat of his tunes. He thanked (pretty much) every single person involved with his tour — the merch guy, the person fueling their bus, and so on. He has the energy of a buoyant, Midwestern Bruce Springsteen.
Highlights included: “New Lover” off The Beast in its Tracks — the album sorts through his recent divorce, and this song is his version of a middle finger response. Still, his energy transforms what could be bitter into a joyful catharsis, with a beat you can dance to. “The Curse,” a charming love song between an archeologist and a mummy, transformed into an absolutely heartbreaking tale of lost love through the sheer pathos of his voice. “Change Of Time,” his closing number, grew from a delicate smattering of strings on his guitar to an overwhelming swell of sound and feeling. “Idaho,” his opener, left Ritter on his knees, evoking the wail of a train with a perfectly pitched, ringing howl.
Emotion and technical skill, joy and heartbreak join together seamlessly for Ritter. And, like the best musicians, his live performance adds a whole new dimension to his already excellent recordings. His songs have always evoked a kind of Americana I wish I knew better, one of manifest destiny and live-or-die-for-our-principles kind of frontierism. I’ll say this for his chops as a performer — he very nearly takes me there.