TVD Live: Josh Ritter and Elephant Revival
at the 9:30 Club, 2/23

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | You could tell Josh Ritter was happy to be playing the 9:30 Club Wednesday night. He said so, for one thing. It was the second in a two night stand in a place where he recorded one of his live albums, in an engagement that had already sold out the first night. He had a big, goofy smile on most of the night. And, wearing his paint spattered jumpsuit, he jumped a bit as well.

He had come out of a particularly glum period of his life a couple of years back, a divorce documented on his album The Beast in its Tracks. But he’s put that rather forcibly behind him with his eighth album that came out last fall, Sermon on the Rocks, a spirited (though mostly secular) thing that he describes as “messianic oracular honky-tonk.”

Well something like that. The contrast between his hushed acoustic musings, filled with that kind of wordplay, and bigger, broader full band things is what his show was all about.

Lucky his Royal City Band is adept enough to adapt to the changes, coming in tastefully during his hushed acoustic opening song about his native state, “Idaho,” and crashing into the dynamics of the newer “Birds of the Meadow” that followed.

Birds, and the natural world, are a constant metaphor in Ritter’s wordy songs of life, home, and relationships. It’s in a line with the flocks in the fitting “Snow is Gone” which he began solo acoustic in the middle of the set, only to be joined by the really tasty band led by the guitarist Josh Kaufman of the Yellowbirds (more birds!), who can play big or add very subtle ambient tones.

Also standing out when given an opportunity, as during the first encore song “The Curse,” was pianist Sam Kassirer.

For one song, Bonnie Paine of the opening band Elephant Revival provided crucial backing vocals for the lovely “Folk Bloodbath,” from his So Runs the World Away album that gathers all manner of old timey song characters, from Delia to Stackalee, using the tune to the old “Louis Collins.”

The entirety of Elephant Revival joined to add unnecessary percussion to the final song of the night, more to send off the quintet on their last night of this particular tour, than anything needed to augment the whaling song, “To the Dogs or Whoever.”

It wasn’t just an adaptable band required at a Ritter show—it also needs a rapt audience, willing to rock with the faster songs but can also be reduced to hushed whispers right in the middle of songs. Mostly, the audience fulfilled that requirement (except for a couple of drunks near the bar). And yet, you’d think they’d respond with more fervor to favorites like “Kathleen” and “Homecoming,” which is practically his personal “Thunder Road.” Perhaps too used to being quiet, fans were hesitant to sing along too lustily.

In their own set, in advance of their next album, Elephant Revival seemed competent in their familiar brand of Americana, down to honest beards, hats, and plaid for the three guys, and black dresses for the two women—Paine, who also played conga and rubboard; and Bridget Law on fiddle.

Their spacey folk music needed some backbone, though, and worked best with the addition of Royal City Band rhythm section of drummer Liam Hurley and bassist Zack Hickman, on pretty much a straight cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” played not so much in tribute to two of its fallen members (Paul Katner and Signe Anderson, who died the same day last month), but more of an advertisement for the relaxed rules of their home state of Colorado.


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