Saturday, December 5, 2009
Josh Ritter w/ Low Anthem @ The Calvin Theater, December 3rd, 2009
This was Dani's idea. She vouched for the opening act, Low Anthem, but neither of us was too familiar with the featured act. I knew Josh Ritter mainly because of his having been a Signature Sounds recording artist. If you watch the video of Signature's 10th anniversary show at the Calvin, his performance of "Kathleen" is a great moment. And I also know a song of his called "You Don't Make It Easy, Babe" which is a great title. Oh, and I think Richard Shindell does a song of his on South of Delia.
Opening and featured acts both put on great shows.
Low Anthem are difficult to categorize. But if I were to "box" them somehow, I'd say they fit the recent trend of "roots" music that tries to expand beyond the traditional (c.f. Crooked Still, Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers). They comprise 4 musicians, each of whom moved between a few different instruments during the performance. The songs ranged from scratchy, distorted rockers to quiet, subtle hymns and ballads. There were drums, basses, and guitars, but there was also accordion, musical saw, clarinet, horns, and pump organ. I should note that, for me, the sound of that last instrument made me think, immediately and reflexively, of none other than Neil Young. The overall sound of this band bears little resemblance to Neil, but the minute I heard pump organ, I couldn't help but think of "What Happened Yesterday" and "Fallen Angel" and the "unplugged" version of "Like a Hurricane." Maybe that helps to account for my preference for the songs that featured the organ.
The Americana feel to the band was also there in the lyrics. I didn't notice what too many of the songs were about, but I did notice blues motifs. The second song, as I recall, featured the line, "Sally, where'd you get your liquor from," which I know from Reverend Gary Davis. There was a song about a ticket taker that had an eerie, Harry Smith Anthology-ish sort of feel to it. And the lyrical highlight for me was a song whose refrain ended, "your demons tamed / your flowers uncut."
The band was at its best when it focused on longer, gentler pieces. When they tried to rock out, they lost their appeal, mainly because of the scratchiness of the singers when they felt the need to sing over the other instruments instead of through them. But their longer, subtler pieces were haunting and beautiful (and yes, I do think the pump organ was an important part of the sound). I would seek them out to see again and, in the meantime, I'll look into purchasing a recording or two. Really: they're very good.
Josh Ritter sounded a bit more familiar. He led a 5-piece band that played distorted, psychedelic folk-pop, in the style of folks like REM or Matthew Sweet. He and his bandmates radiated eagerness, excitement, energy. Josh's face must be sore from all the smiling he did. He spent most of the set smiling and bouncing excitedly around the stage, strumming rhythm guitar and seeming to have difficulty containing his happiness. I found it difficult not to get caught up in all the fun. The Calvin was pretty full (though noticeably not sold out) and most everyone seemed to be getting into it. When Josh expressed his excitement at playing the Calvin, I believed his sincerity.
Although he and his band looked and sounded like they'd love to be commercial superstars (and, given the kinds of gigs they play, they're well on their way), that doesn't mean that the music didn't make an argument of its own. As with the opening act, I preferred the slower and quieter songs (two categories that didn't overlap with Josh Ritter in the same way they did with Low Anthem), but his band's loud and fast ones were better than Low Anthem's. Unfortunately, it was difficult to understand what Ritter was singing on some of the louder ones. But this guy can write. He played not only "Kathleen" and "You Don't Make It Easy, Babe," but several other songs unaccompanied or with very quiet, country-ish playng from the band, and they all sounded wonderful. "Girl in the war," one was called, and he sang part of it standing away from the microphone, singing out directly to the audience. He can sing and play and write, and I wish I could have heard more of him without all the rocking, good though the band was (in fact, I didn't mind the rock songs; I preferred them to Low Anthem's, anyway).
I'll mention two particularly great moments from Josh's set. First, during the solo portion of the show, Josh asked for the stage lights to be turned completely off. Then, in darkness, he played a song that I think is called "The Curse." In the dark, it was easier to focus on the words and the melody, and I remember being moved. It told a story of some kind, as I recall, and I remember being caught up in it. It's a brand new song, and he mentioned that he'd recently recorded a new album up in Maine with his touring band. Second was a song called "Another New World," also recorded for the new album. This one featured the very best interplay between singer, song, and accompaniment of the night. When it was over, Dani and I looked at each other and said "wow."
So it was a very good show. Better than I'd anticipated, even. I would see either band again, given the chance and a reasonably priced ticket. On to the electric Hot Tuna show this weekend at the Beacon.