Concert Review: Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band Reach New Heights

Ritter LiveIf you’ve found yourself on my blog before, then you most likely read the post where I gush over Josh Ritter.  Gush might be too minor a word.  Lyrically, the guy can ne’er do wrong in my ears.  I’m even willing to let slide the occasional musical shortcoming because atop that shortcoming is usually a clever or poignant lyric.

What I wrote in my I’ll-follow-Josh-Ritter-to-the-gates-of-hell album review of The Beast In Its Tracks didn’t say much about the Royal City Band, Ritter’s long-time backing group.  For one, bassist Zack Hickman didn’t play on the record, and musically, the album didn’t really push sonic boundaries as much as it did emotional boundaries.  The band on the album sounds good.  Not transcendent.

The band I saw on stage at the State Theater in Portland (5.8.13), however, was a sonic beast.  Trans-friggin-scendent.

My first tip o’ the hat goes to lead guitarist Austin Nevins.  The Danelectro wielding guitarist was a standout.  I’ve seen him three times now as part of the Royal City Band, and this was the first time he grabbed my attention.  His lines were melodic.  Simple without being bland.  The guy has killer tone and great instincts as to when to hang back and let Ritter’s lyrics shine, and when to rip and take the band to the next sonic level.

HickmanAnd countless times did the band take Ritter’s folk songs to the next level.  Each member played with severe intensity.  So badass was this band, so full in command of the songs and the collective sound, that they pushed the songs out of the folk category and into rock (not folk-rock, mind you) or at least the indie-rock sound.  Thank God they do.  It’s an absolute treat to be able to hear both brilliant lyrics and a brilliant band in one sitting.  Name me one other act offering that package on the contemporary music scene.  (No, seriously, please do.  I want to hear it.)

What is most beautiful about Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band is that they all believe deeply in the songs.  The band members could be seen singing Ritter’s lyrics even when they weren’t on a mic.  And Ritter believes in his band.  In the pockets of the songs when he’s not singing, he’s smiling at his bandmates.  Nuzzling up to Nevins during a guitar solo.  On his knees bowing to Sam Kassir during a keys solo.  There is mutual respect between songwriter and band.

I should note that Ritter did rip a solo on his maroon Gretsch during one of the tunes — flexing his own musical muscles.

The State Theater performance was the best I’ve seen from the Royal City Band to date.  Maybe Ritter’s recent divorce, made very public in his writing on The Beast In Its Tracks, is the catalyst for the forceful performance of the entire band.  An hour into the show, Ritter addressed his divorce in a five-minute monologue.  He talked candidly with the audience about the difficulties of marriage — any marriage.  He was raw, honest, and human with his audience, just as he is in his songwriting.  It was a beautiful moment.

Maybe the fire the Royal City Band is exuding during this tour is their way of showing support for their frontman as he picks up the pieces and tries to move forward with his life and his music.  For the final number the band donned construction helmets, perhaps as a symbol for the falling debris in Ritter’s life and their steadfast desire to deliver their music amidst the wreckage.

Whatever the reason for their forceful performance, these guys are a full-burning inferno right now.

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  1. Thanks for sharing and great concert review. I saw them in Boston and I thought “Joy to You, Baby” was the perfect vehicle to showcase the collective passion and pride you describe. Zack harmonized like he wrote the words himself. …But then it is a rather expansive and all-in song!

    1. “Joy to You, Baby” has been my 2013 Summer anthem. There’s something about that guitar line mixed with Josh’s words while I’m sipping a cold craft-brewed beer that make me happy to be alive. Glad you picked up on the new passion and pride the Royal City Band are playing with.

      1. Agreed. The song seems to capture exactly the expansiveness, the magnanimity one feels when he glimpses the other side of heartbreak. Everything’s showing signs of life and he’s wide open. Even the lonely parking lots and freeways get his pause and good favor. Even the blasted heat wave.

        I’ve walked so many night miles through my city broken. I’ve drunk the cups of Who cares. And I’ve come through it to even, in some blessed moments, find it in myself to quietly wish my old love well. Sometimes I think the fleeting euphoria of coming back to yourself, to knowing you’ll pull through, is second best only to falling in love. I know no song that captures this very real experience better for me.

        The last refrain is so poignant, for forgiveness and acceptance of one’s self is indeed often the last holdout to healing

        Plus, the lion of evening? Enchanting.

  2. I just saw Josh in Boise last week. It was an incredible performance. I’ve seen him many, many times over the years. The last few times I’ve seen him, one thing sticks out at me: Does he need a new guitarist? I think Austin does a good job but I always feel like he plays “by the book”. I think Josh needs to bring in someone with more of an edge. Towards the end of the show, Josh brought out the Milk Carton kids to join him on Folk Bloodbath. Their main guitarist was excellent and added a whole new dimension to that song. It backed up my theory. No offense to Austin, I think he’s great. It just time for a change.

    1. I know exactly what you’re saying. The first few times I saw Austin play with Josh, I was totally underwhelmed. I wondered what he was really adding to the band. But at the concert in May that I review above, Austin Nevins played like a man on fire. His guitar was at the front of the mix. He played lines that were aggressive and fierce. And Josh and the crowd ate it up. I left that night thinking, Ok, maybe I misjudged Austin Nevins. It’s too bad to hear that you didn’t have the same experience in Boise. Hopefully it was just an off night for him. I’ll have to see what I think the next time Josh is in New England.

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