Words: Sean Moore/ Photos: Kelsey Riordan
Josh Ritter’s pure excitement and joy was written all over his face during his entire headlining show at the State Theatre. For a hardworking and endlessly touring musician he put everything into his set, giving the appreciative Portland crowd all they could have possibly wanted to hear and more. Spanning his twenty-plus year career, across ten albums, he played 5 songs from his latest album, Fever Breaks, which came out back in April.
Seeing Ritter and his incredible band perform is like being taken to church with his very distinctive brand of Americana/ folk rock. There are quieter moments, such as the first few songs of his set which included the opening tune “Thunderbolt’s Goodnight” followed by “Wolves” and “Feels Like Lightning,” two of those from his amazing album Gathering. The quietness of the State Theatre dissipated once the band kicked into “Henrietta, Indiana” though and everyone was dancing, causing the floor to shake underneath the audience’s feet. People were singing along, especially during these louder, sermon-type tunes, like the aforementioned song as well as the raucous “Lantern,” which was a highlight of the night for me. Josh brought out opener Amanda Shires to play fiddle on “The Torch Committee,” which brought loud applause from the crowd.
Having been writing and performing his music for just about half his life now, Ritter knows exactly how to build his setlist in such a way to keep the crowd actively engaged. After building the anticipation from the start with a few slower, quieter tunes, he gives the audience an opportunity to fully engage and appreciate the musicians playing behind him. Then, just about halfway through the set, the band left the stage and Josh played “Thin Blue Flame,” “The Temptation of Adam” as well as a new song solo. The crowd remained nearly silent for these songs, which allowed you to really focus on Josh’s ability to write such excellent, narrative lyrics. His songwriting reminds me Bruce Springsteen. Both just seem to have a way with words, and perhaps the fact that Ritter considers himself an author on the side has something to do with his ability to pen such heartfelt and meaningful songs.
Having appeased his quiet, contemplative nature, The Royal City Band joined Ritter back on stage for more boot-stomping rock in the form of “Homecoming,” which the band stretched a bit past its original five-and-a-half minutes length as the crowd sang along. One of his newest songs from Fever Breaks, “Losing Battle” sounded great with the band’s live flair added to it.
Another set break after “Homecoming” saw the band all come to the front and center of the stage, gathering around Ritter and the single microphone for a few more quiet songs, “Me and Jiggs,” “Lillian, Egypt,” and “When Will I Be Changed”, which Ritter had originally recorded with Bob Weir for Gathering. The entire band ended their 19-song set with the fast-paced, anthem “Getting Ready to Get Down,” which I thought could have fit very well as one of the opening songs, but still managed to fit well at the end.
“The Curse” was the final song before the encore, for which Ritter and his band returned to play “Kathleen” around the single microphone. Josh ended the night with a solo version of “All Some Kind of Dream,” which was the perfect end to an amazing night of music.
Having seen Josh Ritter perform a few times over the past decade or so, I have to say, this was hands down the absolute best show I’ve witnessed, from the collection of songs he played to the crowd’s reactions and participation. I also could not get over just how incredibly grateful and happy Josh seemed to be all night. He barely spoke to the audience, other than to say how thankful he was for everyone coming out a few times throughout the night. Instead, he allowed his music to do the talking for him. And his songs speak in a loud and clear voice.
Adding to the amazing night of music, was the bonus of opener Amanda Shires who played a great forty minute set of her own quiet, contemplative tunes. She opened the night with her deeply Southern-accented voice singing “Break Out the Champagne.” Before playing “When You’re Gone,” she dedicated the song to one of her good friends who passed away and encouraged everyone to be aware of depression in your friends and yourself; and to remember that “there’s people who f*cking love you,” which got a wonderful applause. Shires is a founding member and part of the incredible new country, supergroup The Highwomen (including Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hembry), which she explained has “a revolving door of members.” Having written many of the tunes, Shires ended her set with three of The Highwomen tunes, including “Don’t Call Me” and “Cocktail and a Song.” Her songs are easy to digest and quiet in their nature.