For some reason I closed my eyes. You couldn't see a thing, anyway. But you could hear the voices-- raucous, ecstatic, doomed-- floating from the 200-some crowd and bouncing off venue walls virgin to cigarette smoke. "Dubya dubya ay-ay-ay," we called out. That's not the secret incantantion behind Karl Rove's political black magic, but the answer to a crossword-puzzle clue in the quietest song Josh Ritter played last night, "The Temptation of Adam". From underrated 2007 album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, the song is a gentle acoustic ballad-- a friend who remains a Ritter skeptic once described it as standard "coffeehouse" stuff-- about a man and a woman who find love in a nuclear missile silo, tempting the man to push the button and stay down there with his beloved forever. "'What five letters spell apocalypse?' she asked me," the Idaho-born, New York-based folk-rocker had just finished singing, in a plaintive, plains-y tenor. Before the song, he had asked the crew at Vaudeville Mews to kill the lights. But if someone took a flash photo at that very moment, I'll bet you my vinyl copy of Blood on the Tracks that Ritter was grinning. He almost always is.
Ritter and his four-piece band, recognizable by their handlebar-mustachioed bass player and Stetson(?)-hatted guitarist, don't play many venues this small anymore. The last time I saw them they were in Central Park backed by the New York Pops, doing a set heavy on slow songs for an audience of wine-sipping Upper East Side picnickers who got in for free. But the first time I saw Ritter, in late 2002 or early 2003, was at a place a lot like this: a small-ish venue called Schubas, in Chicago. He was by himself in those days, and I was there with one of my best friends from college, drinking Sierra Nevada and having our minds blown. Last night's show couldn't match the first-impression dynamism of that night, especially because the setlist left out moralistic rumbler "Harrisburg" (a personal fave from that era), but it was about as close as you could get sans a time machine. For a packed house at the Mews, Ritter and the band romped through 19 barnstorming songs rich with crunching guitar, pealing Wulitzer, and a couple of hundred years of American myths and imagery.
Critics, myself included, tend to praise Ritter for his torrential, almost Biblical lyrics, but some of the best lyrics he ever wrote aren't even words. Case in point: "Kathleen", a poignantly romantic roots-rocker from 2003's Hello Starling, in which anyone who's new to Ritter's metaphors about the Northern Lights can still fill the room joining in on his perfectly timed "Whoa-oh-oh-whoa-oh"s. Plenty of people did know the words, however, and they weren't afraid to sing or clap along, adding a nice, communal spirit from churning opener "Mind's Eye" to encore finale "Empty Heart"(both from The Historical Conquests). As for time machines, we got "Me & Jiggs", a classic about carefree Saturday nights and their fleetingness, from 2002's The Golden Age of Radio, and also "Lillian, Egypt", from 2006's The Animal Years, with some onstage juggling to match the song's melodramatic silent-movie themes. "Thanks for coming back," someone shouted, as Ritter was playing the Buddy Holly-ish new-love rock & roller "Right Moves", again from his most recent album.
Ritter also played some promising new songs, which continued his trend toward broader stylistic variation without leaving behind his familiar American folklore tropes. One was piano-based and something of a waltz; the lyrics mentioned both New York and Iowa (yay). "There ain't nothin' new about the world," Ritter sang on another, sludgier song with a lumbering bass groove-- I think that one might be called "Black Hole". Probably my favorite of the newer songs was slower but full-sounding, with Ritter on electric guitar and singing about the Southern Pacific Railroad. "Remember me to Roxyanne," he beseeched. Anybody who somehow wandered into the show without knowing any of Ritter's songs, old or new, might have recognized a couple of covers: Ritter worked a snippet of the Beatles' insipid calypso-tinged "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" into The Historical Conquests secret weapon "Rumors", actually a fun touch, and he opened up his encore with his gorgeous solo version of Bruce Springsteen's "The River", marred only by some drunken burps and chatter from over my shoulder. I'm no Springsteen fan, but even I have gotta recognize "The River"; Ritter's version is soft and appropriately pained.
Des Moines was seeing Ritter at what must feel like a strange place in his career. His last couple of albums have been on corporate labels or their imprints, and he has played on national TV, so he's not exactly an unknown anymore, and he's too earnest and rootsy for most of the novelty-seeking hipster crowd, anyway. At the same time, he's not exactly a household name, and whoever decides what gets played on radio stations these days seems to have blown it by not making "Right Moves" bigger than whatever that latest awful Rob Thomas jam is. Another friend complained to me once about Ritter repeating some stage patter at multiple shows-- a forgivable offense for a touring musician, of course, but also always kind of a bummer-- but last night he was ready with real Des Moines reminiscences about the "High Life Tavern," fishing in the Raccoon River, and a local waitress recognizing him as being in "the Fifteen Dollar Band." What if he never gets the critical and popular recognition he deserves? What if he plays the Mews again the next time he comes to Des Moines, and the next, and the Central Park shows start turning back into Bowery Ballroom shows start turning back into Mercury Lounge shows? I don't know. But Josh Ritter's songs are stuck in my head, and he's coming to the chorus now.