Thursday, May 1, 2008

Great Concert Yields New Obsession: Josh Ritter in Williamsburg

Once upon a time, Josh Ritter was an Oberlin College undergraduate that Ellen was pushing on venues across the country, and I was a coffeehouse manager willing to pay a whopping $45 for him to play a set at the fabled Postcrypt Coffeehouse. He sat down on the creaky wooden stage in the basement of St. Paul's Chapel for a few sets of music in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I remember one of those nights that Josh played at the Postcrypt where Howard Emerson, who was also on the bill that night, came up to me and said, "The strings are just falling off that kid's guitar. They've been on there for months. They're ready to pop any second now. I offered him a spare set." I also remember many of the women involved with the Postcrypt being particularly excited when Josh Ritter was coming to play.

Well, these days, Josh Ritter has added a couple of zeros onto the type of fees that he can charge, probably does not have to go very long between restringings of his guitar and certainly is driving women wild in venues much bigger than the basement of St. Paul's Chapel.

He recently passed through town to play two nights at the Music Hall of Williamsburg; the second night was added because of popular demand. (And for the record, the crowd was surprisingly male-dominated.) I had only heard that he would be appearing in Brooklyn a couple of days before the show, and by that point, both shows were sold out. My friend Caroline -- who I know through Ellen, and they go way back -- called me up on Saturday afternoon and said, "Hey, I have an extra ticket to see Josh Ritter." I said, "I'm there. So there. No question."

Prior to Monday night, I had most recently seen Josh play at the South Street Seaport in the summer of 2006. That show had been amazing. And what was kind of great about it was that it was difficult to say why it had been amazing. I thought his voice that night was a bit out-of-shape. I thought that the band fell out of the pocket quite a bit. And I thought that the banter was inane. But I walked away from the tall masted ships of South Street Seaport feeling like I had just seen one of the best shows of the year. Josh played with such energy and enthusiasm, and the crowd ate it up, and a very positive feedback loop was born.

That same year, Stephen King, in his Entertainment Weekly column, had offered up Josh's album The Animal Years as the best CD of the year and possibly the best of the past five years. And it is a great disc, which I listened to quite a bit in 2007 (including during a two-month period in Indonesia where it was a real staple of my musical diet). But I had not seen Josh live since the South Street Seaport show.

He has only gotten better. The show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg was terrific from start to finish. (I'll describe the venue and the opening act below.) It was a perfectly orchestrated show with some more of that yummy positive feedback stuff going on.

I did not keep a setlist from the start of the show, but after I heard "Wolves," my favorite song from The Animal Years, I tried to do my best. That was the third song of the set, and to start on a negative note, it not played quite as well as on the album. Specifically, the galloping drum beat that propels the song along was missing, and the piano riff that defines the melodic background also was missing. It was a stripped-down-for-the-worse version, I'm sad to say, but it was good enough to get me to turn the corner and be fully into the show.

Josh was simply masterful with the crowd. Two songs after "Wolves," he started a really quiet song, and the whole crowd zoomed in on him and was totally in the moment with him. And then he revved the dynamic back up in the other direction, busting into "Hello Starling." And then he whisked back in the intimate direction with a piano and guitar version of "Here at the Right Time."

And then, after an inspiring discussion of how Brooklynites needed to reclaim the borough from New York City -- "There's only a few bridges... If we all just left here together tonight... We could go to the Williamsburg Bridge, and we would seal it off. And then we would go to that next bridge, the one before the Brooklyn Bridge, and just seal that one off, too. ... And then the Brooklyn Bridge... And we would turn Brooklyn into an anarcho-agrarian society... It's a Monday..." -- he asked that the stage lights be turned off -- "No, turn those ones off, too. ... Yes, these ones right here." -- such that he was standing alone with an acoustic guitar surrounded by total darkness on stage. I don't remember what the song was -- to my ears, it sounded like (believe it or not) a Tom Russell song -- but the moment was just perfect: a whole crowd full of people swaying silently with their eyes trained on a spot on the pitch dark stage where we knew there was a lone troubadour singing his song.

And then the lights came up; the band rushed back on stage; and they launched into the grooving "Rumors" with its chorus of "So you're gonna have to show me / How that / Dance is done, / The one where somebody leaves someone. / Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh." And that was followed by the poptastic "Right Moves" and then the purposefully jerky "Real Long Distance" with its pounding piano percussion. (Sam Kassirer, who also produced the most recent Josh Ritter album (The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter) was solid on piano all night, even considering my complaint above about "Wolves.") "Real Long Distance" had been kicked off by Josh introducing drummer Dave Hingerty, saying "He is a doctor of divinity in 19 different religions, and he will now lead us in an ecumenical prayer!"

On "California," Josh invited bassist Zack Hickman over to the microphone with him to engage in some luscious (and reverb-assisted) Byrds-style harmonies that were totally appropriate for the tune. And then they launched into the song that has become my total obsession since the show: "Empty Hearts." What a great song: a simple, repetitive chorus that the entire crowd was singing along with. It was awesome, simply awesome. And then they wrapped up the regular set with "Kathleen," which also had the crowd singing along for its duration.

The encore opened up with the Dr. Strangelove-esque "The Temptation of Adam," introduced as "a song about a girl I knew in the armed services." It was quiet and sparse, and the crowd was deep into it again. And then the band kicked into "Lillian, Egypt" to rock out the night, complete with juggling -- yes, juggling.

I left completely satisfied and only slightly minded the terrible two-hour subway ride back to Morningside Heights. I think I listened to "Empty Hearts" three or four times on that subway ride. Check it out here.

On the Venue

So the Music Hall of Williamsburg... Have you ever been to the Bowery Ballroom? Then you have been to the Music Hall of Williamsburg. It's ridiculous! At the Bowery Ballroom, you walk down a set of stairs and find yourself in a U-shaped bar. After you walk around the U-shaped bar, you go up a flight of stairs and enter a large room with a wooden floor. There is a balcony area with a bar and a bunch of small tables. At the Music Hall of Williamsburg, you don't walk down stairs to get in, but when you do enter the venue, you encounter a U-shaped bar, and then after you walk around the U-shaped bar, you go up a flight of stairs to get to...

On the Opening Band

Ultimately I walked away from the concert on Monday obsessed with Josh Ritter, but the opening act, Langhorne Slim, is not to be underrated.

Opening acts often come out, play their songs and leave the stage. They do not banter. They do not aim to win over the crowd. They do not try to impress. And they often succeed: they don't leave an impression.

Langhorne Slim came out ready to play, ready to entertain and ready to impress. Dressed in bright white pants and wearing a gentlemanly hat, he was all over the stage, jumping up on the drum riser, getting down low to pound away on his guitar and jumping into the microphone to shout out the lyrics. Joined by upright bassist Paul Defiglia, who took some really nice solos, and drummer Malachi DeLorenzo, who was rivaling the mighty Travis Harrison for the Most Intensely Curious Facial Expressions While Drumming Award, this was a good set of music.

In the end, the Josh Ritter tour de force has erased the Langhorne Slim songs from my mind. But if someone asked me to check out another Langhorne Slim show, I think I would head on over.

1 comment:

Ellen Stanley said...

bpp"empty hearts" is one of my favorite songs from the new album, too...and josh's live show (as evident when i saw him last fall in minneapolis and nashville) is one of the best around. so proud to see my fellow obie do us proud. :)