Monday, February 28, 2011

Josh Ritter concert review: Hollywood

A version of my review ran in the Orange County Register's Soundcheck blog.

Hollywood is usually wild on weekends, but the craziness factor was ratcheted up several notches on Saturday night as parties were held all over town in anticipation of the Academy Awards.You couldn’t get anywhere near the Kodak Theatre because the surrounding area was blocked off, causing traffic snarls. Further down Hollywood Blvd., Drai’s nightclub at the W Hotel hosted Rolling Stone magazine’s celebrity-studded soiree.

Just one block away, some stars could also be found at the packed Music Box Theatre, where Americana singer/songwriter Josh Ritter performed. Actors John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson (NBC’s “The Office”) were spotted upstairs in the VIP balcony section. Both are regular supporters, having introduced a recent New York City gig. Wilson’s book/website Soulpancake features a new Ritter song (“Wild Goose”), which is also included on To the Yet Unknowing World, the musician’s new EP of B-sides (too bad none popped up in the set), remixes and music videos.

Last June, the Idaho native appeared at the venue during the initial tour for enchanting current album, So Runs the World Away, which was my No. 1 pick of 2010. This time around, the 100-minute set was a bit shorter (but no less stunning) and included six different songs.

Appearing solo on a stage festooned with rosebuds, state flags and old fashioned lamp posts, Ritter quietly did “Come and Find Me” (from Golden Age of Radio) on acoustic guitar. Then his four-piece Royal City Band entered, Ritter yelped and it was onto the rollicking “Good Man.” The vocalist sported a wide grin and fans sang along loudly. The high energy vibe continued on “Lillian, Egypt” and a memorable lead guitar solo by Austin Nevins.

Haunting organ swells on the stark “Southern Pacifica” and waltz time piano work on the somber, mummy-come-to-life tale “The Curse,” came courtesy of keyboardist/Ritter producer Sam Kassirer. They were among the newer song standouts.

The group really rocked out during a supercharged “Real Long Distance,” bolstered by Ritter and Nevins’ wicked electric guitar playing. Ritter jumped in the air and let a fan standing in front of the stage strum the instrument. An extended “Harrisburg” had an equally enthusiastic delivery and segued into the usual snatch of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” (Ritter’s ad-libbed description of L.A. halfway through did suck out some momentum though). 

Another questionable decision came amid the dramatic, multiple versed “Thin Blue Flame.” Dedicating it to “the people of Libya,” Ritter requested all the lights be turned off and sang unamplified with acoustic guitar. While it added to the song’s intense mood, straining to see and hear it was a chore.

Ritter tends to come up with left-field concert cover choices (in ’10, it was “Moon River” and “Mexican Home,” his contribution to a John Prine tribute album). On Saturday, the first one fans heard was a gentle take on the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” featuring everyone on backing vocals.

Elsewhere, “Right Moves” and “Kathleen” were jubilant and life affirming as ever. The latter was prefaced by an odd introduction comparing man touching the moon to having a sexy moment “touching each other” – Ritter’s sly way of getting the crowd to slow dance. An equally romantic “Lantern,” propelled by Kassirer’s percolating keyboard noises, was one of the evening’s highlights.

Come encore time, opening act Scott Hutchison (frontman for Scottish indie folk act Frightened Rabbit) joined Ritter for a charming, upbeat acoustic version of The Everly Brothers’ “Stories We Could Tell” (penned by John Sebastian).

Finally, “To the Dogs or Whoever” found the always gracious, frequently giddy Ritter performing guitar on his knees, singing with infectious energy and having fun with the rapid fire wordplay. It closed the proceedings on a high note and definitely left the audience hungry for more.

(Note: Ritter probably would have played longer, but apparently had to adhere to a curfew to accommodate the venue’s Saturday night dance event that was already going on in the upstairs bistro.)

Josh Ritter photo by Marcelo Biglia, courtesy of Sacks & Co.

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