Seeing Josh Ritter Live

When my wife and I were leaving the concert last night, we realized we were leaving a concert with an autographed novel, two sippy cups and getting in a mini-van.

This was not your typical rock concert.

I’ve been listening to Josh Ritter since the winter of 2007. And although he did not play the first song I ever heard of his and consequently my favorite – Girl in the War – it felt like the fulfillment of something. Not so much a prophecy as an investment.

You see, you can rarely listen to Josh’s songs for mere entertainment. Unless of course you are the kind of person that picks of T.S. Eliot for the same. It’s just not that kind of music. There are exceptions but for the most part it’s music for a quiet room and the night sky.  His songs sit comfortably in the middle of all that is still.

Last night’s show in my hometown of Birmingham proved this. There were moments the hush among the crowd sat upon the precipice of impossible. He sang “In the Dark” in the dark. Literally. He stepped in front of the mics, had them turn out all the lights and he stood there without any amplification, along with his guitar, pleading.

So often during the show I felt like I would ruin it by singing along. Not because anyone would hear me, but because I would miss a note.

You notice a few things watching Josh live. He appears to have boundless energy. He bounces to change guitars and cannot keep his right leg still. I don’t know that it’s nervous energy so much as his excitement at getting to do what he does. And you can tell he enjoys it.

He never plays it cool.

One of the things I love about Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and Bing are how you can hear their smile, you can tell they are enjoying it all. They are happy about being able to do what they do. Josh hardly ever stops smiling. It’s infectious and we sat in a position – almost like a box seat off to the side, about 10 feet from the stage – to see the faces of most everyone else. And they were smiling too. You can’t stop smiling as you lean forward from moment one.

Josh talks about heaven, salvation and the Bible more than any artist I know. And yet most of it is from the stance of veritable unbelief. I’ve wrestled with this. And I cannot help but wonder if it’s the spiritual version of the little boy pulling the pigtails of the pretty little girl on the playground in preschool. Either he wants it to all be true but cannot buy in. Or he knows it is true and cannot help but fight it.

This was more of a show than I expected. He waltzed with his guitar during “The Curse.” And before “Wolves” was over, he howled for us. He kicked off a shoe for fun revealing a red sock and played the symbol with his guitar. He laughed at his humor…and told funny stories. Think Vaudeville without being campy.

A lot of artists will say how they feel privileged to be there. It usually feels like the usual nice thing you are you supposed to say that is being said so as to be nice. But last all the way from Idaho…To The Dogs Or Whoever, we all believed him.

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