It must have been an unusually quiet day, because we are not usually out and about when we should be working, nose to grindstone, shackled to the pleasurable daily graft of putting together Uncut.
Anyway, the young American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, whose first two albums – The Golden Age Of Radio and Hello Starling – I had by then become somewhat besotted with, was playing an afternoon showcase at the Social to coincide with the release of his terrific new album, The Animal Years, and I dragged Michael along with me to see him.
The Social was barely full, maybe a couple of dozen people milling around, drinks in hand, with Josh and his guitar on the small stage. He was instantly mesmerising, in the manner, a few years earlier, I had always found Ryan Adams to be. They had much in common – a talent for literate, evocative songwriting, an apparent mastery of whatever musical style they found most appropriate for any given song, buckets of easy charm, a winning way with anecdotal on-stage conversation, a great deal of humour, voices that rung with handsome confidence.
The one big difference between them, of course, is that Josh is Ryan without the attendant traumas, tantrums, self-destructive stroppiness, narcotic dependencies, tendency towards unnecessary showboating, generally tousled waywardness and haughty self-regard that at one point threatened to wholly derail Ryan’s career, and from which behaviour that career has never entirely recovered, a lot of former fans too exasperated by his petulant excesses to persevere with him, even when he returned to some kind of form with last year’s trio of mostly fine albums.
Ritter as a result of his relatively low-profile and absence of headline-grabbing antics hasn’t has nearly the attention devoted over the last several years top Adams, but on the evidence of the turn-out last week for his show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire has accumulated no less a fanatical fan base.
You couldn’t have got more people into the venue at gunpoint, and there’s a growing hum of anticipation when the stage lights go down and a teasing wait ensues before a spruce Ritter, clean-shaven and sharply suited, appears to great cheers.
From where I’m pinned to the bar – well, you have to stand somewhere – what immediately follows is somewhat underpowered, the “London Calling” guitar intro to “Mind’s Eye”, all but lost in a muffled, bass-heavy sound. Things get reasonably quickly sorted, however, and the tongue-twisting rollicking Dylanesque romp of “To The Dogs Or Whoever” – the opening track from the new The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter, which provides nearly half of tonight’s set list – is expertly dispatched by a band whose only deficiency is a lack of obvious charisma.
The surging “Good Man” is another early highlight, as the band and Ritter lock into what by now is a seamless groove, great tunes from all four albums jostling for attention, the simmering shuffle of “Monster Ballads” and, later, the Springsteen wallop of “Wolves” from The Animal Years, particularly striking. There are terrific moments when the band drop away and Ritter takes a ore or less solo spotlight on songs like the recent “The Temptation Of Adam” and the earlier “Harrisburg” and “Lawrence, KS”, both from The Golden Age Of Radio (there is, sadly, no “Me And Jiggs”, with its rousing namecheck for Townes Van Zandt).
The audience is in full, passionate voice for the inevitable singalong that “Kathleen” has become, but respectfully hushed for the haunting “Girl In The War”. They are roaring again, however, on “Snow Is Gone”, but wisely leave it to Josh for most of the closing “Lillian, Egypt”, though a lot of them can’t help joining in on the song’s irrepressible chorus, which is genuinely heart-lifting.
Ritter exits, finally, chased by cheers, a smile on his face as big as the arenas that if he keeps on going like this he’ll very soon be filling.
Josh Ritter Set List
Shepherd’s Bush Empire
November 22, 2007
Naked As A Window
To The Dogs Or Whoever
Here At The Right Time
The Temptation Of Adam
Real Long Distance
Girl In The War
Snow Is Gone