Saturday, February 12, 2011

Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band: A Welcome Tempest of Sound

Last night, Friday, February 11, 2011, Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band threw down at the House of Blues in Boston on Lansdowne Street. His opener, Scottish Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit, admirably carried an empty stage with his broguish croons and playful banter. It's the first opener I've seen in a long time where the audience was actually plugged in and straining their ears to hear.

Luckily near the front of the stage, my friend and I caught glimpses of Ritter as the back-stage door swung open and shut with busy staff members taking care of last-minute gaffs. We were starstruck (embarrassingly and obviously so) by the omniscient radiance and eagerness scrawled on his sanguine face as he anticipated he and his band's arrival on-stage.

A colleague first introduced me to Josh Ritter through his song "The Temptation of Adam," a lyrically rich story of two lovers entangled in an apocalyptic romance permeated by war. Listening to much of his catalogue in anticipation of the show, I felt sure (and slightly ambivalent about the fact) that the concert would be relatively low-key -- serene guitar strumming and an audience dominated by the female population, aside from the few dudes dragged by their girlfriends for pending doom of Valentine's Day.

False: In terms of the crowd, it was heterogenous both in age and gender. And, though if asked I'm sure they'd deny it today, we spotted some testosterone-crazed frat boys rocking out pretty hard to Ritter's undeniably amorous lyrics. What's more, we were surrounded by folks in their 50s who knew the words to every song. In terms of the ambience: holy. shit. Ritter, true to form, did play some slower songs but, in general, it was an-stage conflagration. How could it not be with a front-man and band like that?

Ritter was sandwiched by Zack Hickman and Austin Nevins, two dependably fantastic guitarists. Hickman, a Salvador Dali doppleganger replete with the wild handlebar mustache, dabbles in guitar, bass, tuba, a little bit of vocal back-up, strings and god knows what else. A Somerville, MA native (what, what) Nevins kept it real with seriously impressive guitarwork, topped off by a regal black Lincoln-esque hat. Then we had Liam Hurley on the drums and Sam Kassirer on the piano, who provided a xylophonically rich backbone all night. Throw in a brilliant brass band that hopped on and off stage periodically, and the result was a show that mushroomclouded the roof off the House of Blues.

Ritter wove his way through beauties like "Cursed," "Harrisburg," and "Lantern." For me, though, the band hit their stride most profoundly through "Rattling Locks" and "Rumors." "Rattling Locks" is an incendiary mad scientist of a song. The band grabs their drumsticks and provides a backdrop of furiously tapping beats, the result an atomic fusion of both jarring and euphonious sound. Ritter goes from shining all American school boy to voyeur peering through a window on a dark and stormy with his ominous voice and sinister lyrics. "Rumors" was a rowdy and feet-stomping time, where the band worked together to create a tempest of irresistible noise, punctuated by the very-true platitude "The music's never loud enough!" to the felicity of the crowd (an f-word which Ritter repeatedly dropped throughout his dialogue, and general stage presence, at the show).

One of the most unique, and special aspects of the show was a little audience participation. In anticipation of this Valentine's Day Brawl tour, Ritter and the band invited fans and concertgoers to send in notes to be read on stage to loved ones. Twice during the show, one of the back-stage guys came out with a hatful of notes sent in, which Ritter read aloud to the amusement of the audience. Alternately hysterical, odd ("I love you like e-coli loves room-temperature beef"), and thoughtful, it embossed the experience as a day of tribute to love, friends and family (whether you're single or not!). Ritter waxed mosaics on the origin of Valetine's Day: men running naked through the streets with leather straps hitting the palms of pedestrian women, the union of Hera and Zeuss, and other possible origins.

In other highlights, the band flirted coquettishly with Talking Heads "Once in a Lifetime" (Same As It Ever Was), paid tribute to our prophetic Velvet Underground with "Pale Blue Eyes," and rounded out the show with "Kathleen," "Galahad" from his new b-side/unreleased LP To the Yet Unknowing World, an Everly Brothers cover "The Stories We Could Tell" with Hutchison, "To the Dogs or Whoever," and, in an ironic gesture in New England in February "Snow is Gone." The brawl continues tonight at NYC's Terminal 5.

You can stream all of Ritter's music on his homepage:

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