Josh Ritter, still touring behind his 2007 standout disk The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, made his way to my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, Friday night as part of his “Small Town” tour. The Rev Room, an interesting 500-person venue in Little Rock’s newly revitalized Farmer’s Market area, provided the location for his most recent victory as he won over the near-capacity crowd of slightly drunk rednecks with the good sense to know a $10 bargain of a show when they saw one.
Leading off with a pair of rockers from his most recent album, Mind’s Eye and To the Dogs or Whoever, Ritter and his band established a tempo and too-excited-to-be-cool style that would carry them through the next hour forty-five. Ritter’s exuberance, broadcast through his never-waining smile and white-man-fro, was palpable, immediately energizing the crowd. As contagious was bassist and long-time Ritter friend Zack Hickman. Hickman’s smile-inducing handle-bar mustache almost over-shadowed his driving bass lines and alluded to the Old West saloon piano player that certainly would have been his calling in an earlier day. But this was no earlier day, so Hickman entertained with rollicking background vocals, playing the stage and the audience with the ease of a man at home before a crowd. Ritter played lead and acoustic guitar. The balance of the band was a drummer, a pianist, and a second guitar. Together the quintet provided the backbone and flourishes for Ritter’s solid voice and phenomenal lyrics. And this is the thing about Josh. The guy can write. He started college as a neuroscientist before switching and crafting his own program in American History Through Narrative Folk Music. The five LP’s he’s churned out since graduation play like his senior project. His history in folk/rock.
But I digress. The show drew heavily on his last two albums, with standouts including Monster Ballads, Wolves, Here at the Right Time, and Good Man off The Animal Years. Historical Conquests saw Rumors, Right Moves, Real Long Distance, and Empty Hearts among others.. Along the way the audience was treated to a slow-dance, a disco-version of a song, a “switch” (in which the band got up, mid-song, and switched instruments for a rousing ending), and unflagging energy. The first song of the encore was just Ritter and his guitar playing my personal fav, The Temptation of Adam. This love song set in a missile silo works on more levels than Dostoevsky: as a love song, an homage to Doctor Strangelove (“I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the bomb…”), and an examination of the male need to dominate and control in relationships. Slow and heartfelt, the rendition was perfect first-encore-material, a silent nod to its standing within his canon. The final encore alludes me, but suffice it to say the crowd was as generous in its applause as Ritter and company were with their genius.
In memory, this concert keeps growing. I think that’s because Ritter never forgot that, in spite of the thought-provoking lyrics and above-average band, it was a Friday night and half-drunk rednecks just want to be entertained. Entertain he did. It’s for this reason, if none other, that the comparisons to Springsteen and Dylan are not without merit. He knows that an audience can go to books for philosophy and poetry. They go to a concert to forget about life and sail on someone else’s waves for awhile. If you’ve got ten bucks and he’s coming any where close to you, I suggest you have the good sense to know a $10 bargain of a ticket when you see one. A