Josh Ritter stepped out in front of the Ogden crowd last night with a grin threatening to explode. And then started by shutting everyone up — without even visibly trying to do so. The audience grew still and quiet as soon as Ritter started singing, and the only sound beside his music was the hum of those singing softly along.
And that was only the start. The Royal City Band and Ritter were dressed to the nines; all gussied up in nice slacks and tailored vests, playing with an abandon and joy that Ritter has come to be known for. I couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t a break in his set. No lull, even when he would step away from the mic and ask (very nicely) for the lights to be turned off so he could sing in his ringing, clear tones “Afraid of the Dark.” His band would pause after such intimate moments, the kind that left people clutching their hands up to their chests with their eyes closed, and then follow Ritter’s lead into big, racing folk rock rife with enthusiasm.
Ritter’s set was almost two hours in length. He played a couple dozen songs, everything from his early “Hello Starling” to his most recent “So the World Runs Away,” and even threw in a Neil Young cover. In an unexpected twist, he inserted Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” into the down home tune, “Harrisburg,” causing even hesitant Ritter enthusiasts to yell along in appreciation. He followed those barn burners with the beautiful, eerie waltz about a doomed mummy who seduces an Egyptologist, “The Curse,” and “Folk Bloodbath” which Ritter introduced with, “This a murder ballad. I like murder ballads…they’re clean.”
Josh Ritter plays folk. But not folk like its thrown around in regards to anything with an acoustic guitar and lyrics about trees. Ritter takes big ideas and sets them on the shoulders of a few words and dazzling melodies, leaving his audience deep within the constructed story. During the especially poignant “Girl in the War” (given that this was the anniversary of the end of World War I), it felt as though the audience at the Ogden was holding its collective breath. Some people may have even shed a tear. I may have been one of those people.
At the end of the night, it felt too soon. Ritter left with a promise to return this summer, a gentlemanly bow, and a warmth that lingered to temper the cold outside, leaving some of us with a backward glance, feeling, as my friend put it, “I think that was a dream.”
Kathleen Tarrant is a Boulder writer whose other work can be found on her blog, My Best Friend’s Arm.
Glenn Ross is a Denver-based photographer and new contributor to Reverb. See more of his work here