Sunday, October 21, 2007

Concert review: Josh Ritter

Neil Young played the Morrison Center the other night, but with tickets in the $100 range, my husband and I decided to check out Josh Ritter instead. Ritter, the rising Moscow-based singer-songwriter, was playing for 20 bucks at the Egyptian. I am not sure that'll happen again anytime soon.

All my life, I've wanted to attend a big homecoming concert - you know, where an act makes good and comes home to wild acclaim. I thought a Built to Spill show might do the trick, and seeing them last summer (2006) at the Big Easy was big fun. But Doug Martsch and company aren't known for showmanship or even acknowledging their audience, so they may as well have been playing in Boston as Boise.

Ritter is different. At Saturday's show, he and his band not only treated a sold-out audience to a concert that was at turns gleefully raucous ("To the Dogs or Whoever," "Real Long Distance") and achingly reflective ("The Temptation of Adam," "Idaho"), Ritter just oozed appreciation for his home-state crowd. For one of today's most hyper-literate songwriters, a man who drops phrases like "the avalanche cascades" and "Episcopal philanthropists" into his lyrics, he seemed faintly overcome by the evening's energy.

"It's going to be an amazing night," he earnestly promised at the outset, and he used the adjective "amazing" several dozen more times in his ample between-songs banter. But he didn't deny his fans more personal fare, such as the story about how his family bought a hundred-pound sack of spuds from the Rotary each year. ("I don't need to tell you, that was protection money," he said.) He also recalled an eighth-grade class trip to Boise where he'd visited the Egyptian and saw "Outbreak" with Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo. Yeah, he's that young. In fact, a birthday card for him went around some of the balcony seats, and we all sang to Ritter, who turns 31 today.

Ritter is frequently compared to Bob Dylan, but while Dylan's voice can be a blunt instrument, Ritter's is a strong, supple reed. Several times during the evening, he backed away from the microphone to sing a capella to a silent house, perhaps most memorably in his encore cover of "The River" by Bruce Springsteen, a song he said he listened to endlessly while driving an early-morning rural paper route on the Palouse many years ago. His band was in great form, too. I especially enjoyed the muscular rhythm section of Zack Hickman on bass and Liam Hurley on drums. A three-man horn section added depth to several songs including "Rumors," though the sound crew slightly shortchanged them in the mix.

My husband barely knew Ritter before this show, and I was little more than a casual fan. But we both left the show sure we had seen someone sure to attain, if not superstardom, a reputation as a wildly entertaining and thoughtful wordsmith who shines both on record and live. "He's the real deal," Bruce said. Indeed. Josh and his band treated us all to one of the most magical evenings of music Boise will hear this year.

Yes, we passed up the $100+ Neil Young show for Ritter's $20 gig. We'd seen Young years ago, and these days, I'd rather see someone as their career waxes than as it wanes - but the fact is, Ritter delivered a nearly priceless show. I just hope he never gets too big to play semi-intimate venues like the Egyptian.

P.S. Before the show, we made our first visit to the new A Taste of Memphis restaurant on Idaho Street, in the former Villano's location. We enjoyed tasty catfish, a spicy black-eyed pea casserole, buttery collard greens, and flaky-crust fried peach pie. If you are looking for great soul food, this place has it. We'll be back.

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