Josh Ritter at Park West Auditorium
Chicago, October 16, 2007
What’s in a smile? Mother Theresa said, “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” If you were at the Park West on Tuesday night, you could feel the love. Most of it was coming from the stage.
Josh Ritter’s name is often mentioned alongside the names of the great singer-songwriters of the last generation. Dylan, Springsteen, Taylor. That, to me, is misleading. Ritter, while a capable songwriter with a knack for crafting tight stories with memorable melodies, is a clown. He’s a performer. Someone who brings a smile to your face. And he does it honestly, not with canned speeches and obligatory shout-outs to your city. He does it through the joy of performing. The smile on his face is the same you see on a child’s when he discovers that people respond to a happy face more favorably than a full-throated scream. When a child smiles at you it’s near impossible not to smile back.
The Park West is a cavernous place with unique seating for a club its size. There are tiers of tables and comfy chairs that ring a large dance floor at the head of which is the stage. Sight lines are perfect and there appear to be no obstructed view seats in the joint. Being cavernous though poses challenges to sound engineers and Ritter’s show was no different. Plagued by a thunderous kick drum and dominating bass, it was hard to tell if his guitarist and keyboardist were any good. And maybe that’s why they were having a tough time joining in the fun. While Ritter was grinning from ear to ear and cutting loose with some goofy faces and self-effacing posturing, his sidemen were locked into place never daring to take their eyes off the boss for fear of losing place in the song. Too bad because Ritter was clearly having a great time.
This was my first exposure to Josh Ritter. I’d never even heard a song of his before stepping onto the dance floor as the road crew set up his gear. By the end of the night I could see why critics have become charmed by this goofy kid from Idaho who looks like a cross between Kevin Dillon and GLONO’s own Josh Boisvert of Riviera. His songs are simple and honest and endearing. His performance is genuine. He giggles between songs and thanks the crowd repeatedly. It’s like watching a recital. He wanted so badly to break the barrier between the performer on stage hindered by poorly mixed sound and the eager crowd yearning to take part in the obvious fun onstage that he often stepped away from the mic to shout out lyrics and once, near the end, unplugged his guitar and sang unassisted by the PA in a move that brought 700 people to total silence. Not even a clinking beer bottle or obnoxious cell phone could be heard.
Since this was my first interaction with Ritter, I wanted some perspective from people in the know. I met up with some fans and invited them for a few beers and pizza after the set to get their view on the performance. Ritter has dedicated fans, and I wanted their take on the show.
Daniel is a recent college grad and transplant to Chicago from Iowa. This was only the second Ritter show he’d seen but puts him in his top three favorite artists alongside Neil Young and Wilco. This show, he said, was “a little bit better” than the last show he’d seen in Atlanta in 2006.
“There’s something about him,” said Daniel. “He’s such a sweetheart…his songwriting is…pedestrian.”
“Pedestrian?” I asked.
“That has a bad connotation. It’s…Midwestern, I guess.”
Daniel was drunk. He knew I was taking notes and focused on the fact that I’d written “pedestrian” down.
“Don’t write pedestrian,” he begged, laughing. “I’ll punch you in the face.”
As a recent grad and current coffeehouse barista, Daniel is shamefully underfed. I wasn’t worried about him punching me in the face.
His brother Nathan is a different story. Nathan is in the Air Force and stationed in England where he works with munitions. His musical interests lean toward jam bands. This was also his first Ritter show and he said it was everything he thought it would be, but entirely different from the jam bands he normally sees.
“There’s a different energy. Jam bands are more sensual.”
Sensual? I am not sure about that. I’ve never been to a jam band show so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about but what I have seen from videos is a lot of dirty girls spinning around in their peasant dresses while hairy college boys munch on veggie burritos and nod their heads in unison. I can’t imagine any of those folks getting laid. Ritter’s crowd isn’t anything like that. Mostly comprised of 30-something professionals decked out in their best distressed designer jeans and western shirts, there was only a subtle swaying of bodies in the crowd and the occasional fist pump when the lead guitarist eeked out a note bend.
Katherine is Daniel’s girlfriend and also a recent grad. She’s an aspiring rock critic and so was overly cautious with her words.
“I don’t want to say something that sounds stupid.” Too late.
After some prodding, she acknowledged that the Atlanta show she saw with Daniel was “more rocking.” Particularly, Ritter’s performance of the song “Blue Flame” was more powerful in the ATL. She agreed that the muddied sound may have been a factor.
Not willing to let it go, Daniel again pestered me about the “pedestrian” comment.
“What I meant,” he slurred. “Is all men…or all women. I guess…everyman.”
Yes, Ritter is an everyman. But not the downtrodden and burdened everyman who too often play the hero in mid-century novels and plays. Ritter is the happy everyman. The guy who wins in the end and knows it all along. His is a one act play where there is no redemption because there is no conflict. That’s not to say he’s simple, but that he’s content. It’s hard not to be when you smile through life.
Josh Ritter – “Mind’s Eye” (Live at Juan’s Basement)
22-Oct-07 Portland, OR – Aladdin Theater
24-Oct-07 San Francisco, CA – Bimbo’s 365 Club
25-Oct-07 Los Angeles, CA – El Rey
27-Oct-07 Tucson, AZ -Plush
29-Oct-07 Austin, TX – The Parish
31-Oct-07 Birmingham, AL – Workplay Theater
01-Nov-07 Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse
02-Nov-07 Nashville, TN – Exit/Inn
03-Nov-07 Louisville, KY – Headliners
04-Nov-07 Newport, KY – Southgate House
05-Nov-07 Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle
07-Nov-07 Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live
09-Nov-07 New York, NY – Webster Hall