It makes your work easier to pare down to fit in the Paper of Record. The Springsteen comparisons are legit; Idaho neo-folkie Josh Ritter is the real deal. But whereas the Boss can’t produce a note without squeezing his face into mask of constipated anguish, Ritter can’t sing without smiling. Or so it seemed at the 9:30 Club Tuesday night, where a literally hopping-glad Ritter jumped, jived, and wailed his hyperactive way through a buoyant 20-song, 100-minute set. “This is going to be really, really fun!” he sqeaked early on. Dylanesque? More like Elmo-esque — but he wasn’t wrong.
Opening with “Moons,” a 51-second epic from his new The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, Ritter slammed straight into a double-timed “The Dogs or Whoever.” By the time “Wolves” careened seamlessly into “Rumors,” Ritter and the four players sharing his stage (there was also a horn section that came and went as required) had proven themselves a band rather than a cast of session players surrounding a freshly-anointed star. Rough-hewn, ramshackle barn-burners would alternate with delicate acoustic performances all night. On the latter, Ritter’s command of the crowd was so assured you could actually hear receipt-printers chirping annoyingly from behind the bars.
Cuts from the new album and 2006’s The Animal Years dominated, though earlier concert staples “Harrisburg,” “Kathleen,” and the set-closing “Lawrence, KS” all elicited lyric-mouthing reverence from the die-hardest segment of the audience.
There were snags: “The Temptation of Adam,” a tale of blooming pre-apocalyptic romance, was a bit too fragile for Ritter to negotiate after 45 minutes of loud, loose rock and roll. “Girl in the War,” too, disappointed in a leaden, big-rawk arrangement ill-suited to the song’s inclusive humanity. But things got back on track quick when the horns returned to lend “Right Moves” and “Real Long Distance” a quality of celebration.
Ritter also demonstrated he shares Springsteen’s penchant from eras past for rambling anecdotes that are sometimes poignant but just as often silly, like the potato story (!) that preceded “Temptation.” Better was the atmospheric recollection of his high school paper route that gave way to a haunting solo version of Springsteen’s “The River.” The busted-strings rave-up of “Next to the Last Romantic” (featuring openers Old School Freight Train) that followed sent everyone home wearing beatific grins that seem destined to be called Ritter-esque.