Review: Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band at Brooklyn Steel
Brooklyn-based singer songwriter, Josh Ritter and his Royal City Band, provided safe harbor from the storm at Brooklyn Steel (309 Frost St) during Sunday’s torrential downpour. The weather was a nice touch for a show supporting Ritter’s ninth full-length studio album, Gathering, an album Ritter has described as a “record full of storms”.
This is Ritter’s 20th year of playing and recording music and his latest album, while marking a departure from some of his more traditional folk roots by incorporating aspects of rockabilly and gospel, remains original, fresh and an organic next step. His songs across these nine albums span the full spectrum of the human experience, allowing his listeners to reach for one during a break up, one when experiencing the giddiness of new love, another when at a crossroads, but all with an undercurrent of optimism that leads you to believe that even when your heart is breaking, there’s a silver lining you just haven’t uncovered yet. It is likely that this is the reason that Sunday’s audience clearly felt such a strong connection to each word and poetic turn of phrase he performed on stage. Returning to Ritter’s music often feels like an old friend draping a warm and comforting blanket around your shoulders.
Ritter opened with two new high energy tracks, the soulful “Feels Like Lightning” and “Showboat”, a sunny song with somber undertones, to an electrified audience who were with him from the first note. Displaying his self-deprecating sense of humor about playing a show heavily weighted in new material, he joked, “Getting to play new songs, you like to have low light, you know what I mean? Like on first dates.” At the end of the song, an audience member, as if catching up with an old friend, casually inquired, “How are you feeling tonight, Buddy?” Ritter replied, “I feel good. I feel fantastic. I’m just so happy to be here with you.”
Ritter grew up in Moscow, Idaho, but now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. Brooklynites have been spoiled in recent years to see him play many local venues as well as seeing him on the bill for shows like the Leonard Cohen tribute at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (66 N 6th St) earlier this year. “It’s amazing, I live not very far from here and I just love it. I love this city. There was a time when I moved away for some stupid reason I have no idea why. We came back and I’ve never been happier in my life.”
Ritter and band played some more new songs (“Friendamine”, “Thunderbolt’s Goodnight”, “Train Go By” and the gothic-tinged “Dreams”) before returning to old favorites, “Me & Jiggs”, “Hopeful” (performed with beautiful supporting vocals from longtime collaborator Zachariah Hickman) and perhaps his most popular ballad “Kathleen” which elicited palpable excitement from the crowd and surprisingly felt akin to sitting around the campfire with a few (thousand) friends singing along. Considering how lyrically complex his narrative led songs can be, it is a miraculous thing to hear an audience committed to accurately singing every word.
Watching Ritter play, he exudes pure joy at performing and has an infectious stage presence that brings to mind a lyric from his 2003 song, “Snow is Gone”: ‘I’m singing for the love of it / Have mercy on the man who sings to be adored’. With childlike giddiness, he disarms the most unlikely of audience members. There is never any doubt of Ritter’s affection for his audience who he clearly doesn’t take for granted, acknowledging to the crowd how grateful he is that they allow him to do what he loves for a living.
Connecting to one another through storytelling and recognizing in a tangible way what unites, rather than divides us has never seemed more important. As the show draws towards its close, Ritter acknowledges the cultural and political landscape. “It’s such a weird time right now. It’s just crazy. But we’re all going to take care of each other. I think the biggest problem is that people try to make you lose faith in each other and it’s not even the big things, it’s in the small things and I just refuse. One of the most amazing things about being alive at this time is being able to see that other people (refuse) too.”
There’s that reassuring blanket around your shoulders again. In just under two hours there is a real sense in the room of the possibility that just maybe, everything really will turn out okay. As the final song nears, Ritter smiles at the crowd and thanks them again saying, “When I go to bed tonight, I’ll know why I’m happy.”
Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band tour continues throughout the US, Europe and Canada until February 2018. Ticket includes a download of his latest record, Gathering.