Josh Ritter Brings his “Messianic, Oracular Honky-Tonk” To the Rams Head
(part of the Inaugural Annapolis Songwriters Festival)
For a guy who writes and sings about dying mill towns, the nature of truth, and the use and abuse of God, Josh Ritter sure seems to be having a great time. His show at the Rams Head in Annapolis (MD), which capped the first day of the inaugural Annapolis Songwriters Festival, was a joyous, at time raucous, celebration.
Ritter’s songs — which he, rightly, classified as “messianic, oracular, honky-tonk” — are dense, complicated, and take on complex subjects. They are also a lot of fun. His “ah shucks” energy, and constant smile, makes it easy to connect with even his most intellectual songs. The Rams Head audience was full of Ritter faithful; but those (like me) who were not as familiar with his music became instant fans.
Ritter came out without an introduction, and with just his Gibson J-45 waiting for him on stage. By the end of “For Your Soul,” his first song, he had the entire sold-out crowd in his pocket.
“Feels Like Lightning,” up next, was a powerful example of what makes Ritter so compelling – his jangly guitar propelled the song, but the lyrics were always front and center. He asks, “Why do they call it love when/Oh, it feels like lightning?” and sings:
This ain’t any kind of storm for chasing
Going to catch up to you now slow or racing
It’s going to catch you to you now by and by
Going to make you feel good, going to make you cry
“Going to make you feel good, going to make you cry” could be Ritter’s mission statement.
Every song was full – often very full – of wonderful phrases, images, and characters. Ritter is not someone who is satisfied to use one word when three will do! It is no surprise he has also written novels (including the recent and wonderful “The Great Glorious Goddamn of it All”); his approach to stories and characters all but demands a larger canvas. Imagine if William Faulkner were a happy guy who wrote songs.
The cover songs Ritter offered accurately reflect his different facets of his personality. The Styne/Green/Comden oldie “Make Someone Happy,” popularized by Jimmy Durante, is as simple and pure a song as there is (“Make someone happy/Make just one someone happy/And you will be happy too”). Jimmy Drifwood’s “Tennessee Stud” (sung most famously by Johnny Cash), which Ritter introduced as the “first song he ever loved,” is a dark, story song which is, at once, the tale of a man who becomes a murder and, in his way, a love song to his horse.
Ritter loves words, and loves to deploy them with a surgical precision, to open our eyes to things that may pass unseen. In “Truth is a Dimension (Both Invisible and Blinding)” he tells of pointing his telescope to the sky: “I turned it toward an unassuming patch of dusty sky/That was really fifty million stars a billion lightyears wide.” And this, from his classic “Kathleen,” “All the other girls here are stars/you are the Northern Lights/They try to shine in through your curtains/you’re too close and too bright/They try and they try but everything that they do/Is the ghost of a trace of a pale imitation of you.”
I could quote Ritter’s lyrics all day. But what is harder to capture is the joy he brings to his singing, and the connection he has with the audience. Yes, many of Ritter’s songs are serious, but they are never solemn. He’s always (always!) having fun. When he tells the audience “I love you guys,” there is no doubt that he means it.
Ritter’s 90-plus-minute show (with one short break) included 23 songs. And every one of them was a winner. By the time he concluded with a heartbreakingly tender acapella take on the traditional Scottish farewell song “The Parting Glass” (So fill to me the parting glass/And drink a health whate’er befall/And gently rise and softly call/Good night and joy be to you all”) it was clear that he had, indeed, brought joy to all who were lucky enough to be at the show.
Ritter is on tour up and down the East Coast between now and the end of the year. Don’t miss him!
Find more info on Josh Ritter here: https://www.joshritter.com/
For more information about the festival lineup and schedule, check here: https://www.annapolissongwritersfestival.com