The Music Mill
Josh Ritter's lineage may be traced back to John Prine's winking sarcasm and Bruce Springsteen's aching melancholy, but he’s no one-man act. His band — guitarist, bassist, keyboardist and drummer — is lean and beautifully expressive, and Ritter is an incredibly engaging performer.
Like Springsteen, Ritter's greatest strength lies in his abilities as an arranger and band leader. His best songs have big, beautiful piano parts, driving rhythm sections and arching climaxes.
Midway through "Good Man," Ritter's band punctuates the song's "They said it got run down by a bad, bad man" line with two short bursts — like gunshots chasing the bad man away. It was an exhilarating moment of musical spontaneity.
It's as expressive and fluid as live music can get and as obviously spontaneous a moment as you'll find in music as meticulously crafted as Ritter's rural Americana.
The set list stuck mostly to Ritter's faster material, peppering in a ballad after four or five faster selections. Most of the show’s highlights were drawn from Ritter’s faster songs: "Good Man," a faster "Wolves," "Right Moves," "Mind's Eye" and the standout, a spectacular "Lillian, Egypt.” On slower songs like "Girl in the War," Ritter's band struggled to make the material jump. "Girl in the War," normally Ritter's best song, lagged pretty badly.
Ritter's place in modern rock's landscape is a little hazy. He's universally acclaimed by all the right rock critics, but his audience trends towards older, classic-rock fans.
“Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” may have been an attempt to modernize or urbanize his sound, with certain songs, "Mind's Eye" in particular, veering closer to Spoon than Springsteen.
Ritter has played Indianapolis before, and judging by his band's elated reaction, they clearly love it. In a set loaded with “Animal Years” and “Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” selections, the crowd returned the favor.
As the band exited after the encore, Ritter said the show had been one of his favorites of the tour. Something tells me he'll be back.