Josh Ritter is constantly in awe. His face lights up with joy and surprise every time he can tell the audience knows his lyrics. A clever guitar lick or a well-timed entrance for the synthesized organ coming from the keyboards seems to catch Josh off guard, as if another musician, an old friend, had just appeared on stage to make a guest appearance. And every time Josh comes out on stage, he grins in wide-eyed disbelief, somehow shocked that the audience is still there—and to see him.
Before a sold-out crowd last week at Cat’s Cradle, Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band gleefully commandeered the stage and lighting system. Josh smiles and squints so hard his eyes might as well be closed, and he stays that way throughout the set. He smiles so hard he sometimes mixes up his own lyrics, and more often than not he abandons the carefully building dynamics of his master tracks in favor of bounding radiantly through each song without a care in the world.
One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who so obviously and visibly enjoys anything they do as much as Josh enjoys doing what he does. He thanks the crowd repeatedly, and he seems sincerely grateful just for their presence and their engagement. He dispels any notion of a simple, one-sided relationship between artist and audience — it’s clear that the audience is not the sole beneficiary of this cultural and economic transaction.
The performance is like a conversation; Josh hopes and expects the audience to be active participants. And they are, cheering, clapping and singing along as Josh runs through his catalog of pensive, sometimes heart-wrenching Americana.
And even as Josh’s smile continues, the overall tone of the show gets darker. Josh plays several songs from his newest album, “The Beast in its Tracks,” which he wrote in a long, depressive period after his divorce. The energy is different—more reflective, even spiteful—and Ritter reinterprets some of his older songs to tie it into his life now. He brings the audience into his life by making his whole set a story about his struggle with the divorce. The songs go from spite, anger, and talks of a “new lover” to misery and regret to hope and optimism. With precisely organized instrumentals, elaborate, gentle wordplay, and Josh’s unwavering enthusiasm, he brings the audience with him into the depths of hate and depression, and then back up to the forward-thinking positivity of hope.
Ritter certainly leaves his audience wanting more, though you can’t help but wonder if he walks away just as fulfilled.