Let’s say this about Josh Ritter: The guy is a consummate showman and about the most upbeat person you would want to see as the rain pelted you in an outdoor amphitheater.
Monday’s rainstorm drenched the crowd at the Botanic Gardens from the minute Ritter and his Royal City Band took the stage to the moment they bounded off. Even Ritter himself, though under a tent, understood the problem. Starting to strum a slow song, Ritter looked out at the shivering and soaking wet crowd. “I will not play you a slow number in the rain” before launching into a rocking version of “Snow is Gone” from his 2003 album “Hello Starling.”
Josh Ritter is one of the best singer songwriters in the game right now, putting out high-level albums that get more sophisticated and tuneful with each CD. His latest, “The Beast in Its Tracks,” is his “Blood on the Tracks” – his most personal album to date, about the breakup of his marriage to musician Dawn Landes. He delved deeply into the album on Monday night, playing the most popular song, “Hopeful,” third on the set list. That song, with cadences of John Lennon and, well, hopeful lyrics, conveys the pain of divorce, the love that still endures and about how you can survive even the worst times.
Last summer, when Ritter played Boulder in the middle of a blazing hot summer, the first rains in many days started to fall outside of Chautauqua Auditorium. Ritter on Monday quipped he doesn’t know who in his band is the rain magnet. Maybe it is him. Many of his songs reference rain. The most eloquent was perhaps the highlight of Monday’s show, “Girl in the War,” a poetic song about war off of 2006’s Animal Years.
“But I gotta girl in the war, Paul her eyes are like champagne. They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain.”
Ritter told the soggy audience he hasn’t played the Botanic Gardens in seven years. And Monday night’s show wasn’t sold out. Maybe it was because it was a weekday or that Ritter and his band came through Denver during the winter. But the grassy Botanic Gardens bowl around the stage was only about halfway full. Nevertheless, Ritter has a dedicated following who crowded in front of the stage to belt out the lyrics with the Moscow, Idaho, native. Ritter’s music is clearly adult contemporary and seems ready to bake for the KBCO crowd. I cannot understand why he isn’t in the rotation. Maybe his lyrics are too heady and poetic for the masses. It’s too bad to think seven years ago, he was in the beginning. And here he is playing the same venue that isn’t full and many members wondering who this guy was.
You wouldn’t be able to tell any stress about any of this on the performer’s face, which is almost always beaming in a childlike state of happiness on stage.
“I know it’s not been ideal,” Ritter said toward the end of the set, acknowledging timing issues with the band and the torrent of rain. “But this is beautiful,” he said, acknowledging the crowd and the environs.
For an encore, Ritter brought out the opening band, Milk Carton Kids, to sing “Folk Bloodbath” from 2010’s “So Runs the World Away.” The Milk Carton Kids are Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan from California, who have played Prairie Home Companion and whose supple harmonies sound like Simon and Garfunkel with a bluegrass feel. Their hilarious stage banter is almost better than their nearly perfect sound.
The gardens got lucky Monday with plenty of water and an amazing bouquet of music from two bands at their prime.
Jeremy Meyer is a metro reporter at The Denver Post and a regular contributor to Reverb.
Evan Semón is a Denver freelance writer and photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. See more of his work.