Bimbo’s 365 Club
San Francisco, CA
October 24, 2007
Josh Ritter: Throwback
No, Virgina, Singer-songwriters are not dead, they are quietly strumming their way across the country playing small theaters and clubs; communing with 200 decent white folks at a time; playing to audiences determined to find melody and poetry in their music instead of thumping, sexually explicit propositions (not that there is anything wrong with that) or celebrations of gratuitous violence (might be something wrong with that) telling Garrison Keilor tales of country dance tractor rides and other non-sequiturs of unrequited love.
Josh Ritter is a throwback to a time when singer-songwriters ruled. There have been several revivals of the singer-songerwriter motif since its halcyon days in the 1970s - perhaps gaining the most media attention were the 1990s Lilith Fair celebration of female singer-songwriters, filled with estrogen-fueled outpourings of mediocre confessional sorority love, broken hearts and female empowerment, Indigo Girls-inspired patchouli affairs accompanied by ubiquitous gushing comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones.
The recent resurgence of male singer-songwriters, like Ray Lamontagne, Ryan Adams, David Gray and Josh Ritter has not garnered quite the same level of media attention. This may be in no small part due to the continuing hegemony of males in popular music. Serious singer-songwriters, like Josh Ritter, have been playing small theaters and Universities across the country under the radar of popular acclaim. The comparison of these artists to 1970s icons of male singer-songerwriters, like Cat Stevens, James Tayor, Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan is all too readily apparent. And there were times last night that Ritter sounded uncannily like both Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. He certainly has already penned some tunes that rival some of the best work of these two musical legends.
The last time Josh Ritter performed in San Francisco, he played at the Make-Out Room with a capacity of approximately 75 people. Last night’s sold-out show had approximately 750 people in attendance. This is in no small part due to Ritter’s “Girl In the War.” A song that is a true stroke of genius and has garnered quite a bit of critical claim amongst the antiwar NPR set. “Girl in the War” is an achingly beautiful plea and bitter rejection of the politics of war and destruction and is typical of Ritter’s early melodic ballads that are both personal and political in a truly revelatory way.
At Bimbo’s 365 Club, one of San Francisco’s most attractive venues, Ritter was joined by the ‘Alcatraz Brass Band,’ a small horn section, which brought some life to the setlist that was heavily dependent on his new more upbeat album. Unfortunately, the uptempo songs may have been the first signs of Ritter’s own limitations as songwriter as they did not demonstrate the same level of creativity, both melodically and lyrically, as his ballads. Nevertheless, Ritter deserves recognition and inclusion with the very best songwriters of the post-Dylan generation. He is a talent to watch.
Recommended Songs: Girl in the War, Snow is Gone, Here at the Right Time, Good Man, Hearts Still Beating, Thin Blue Flame.