|Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band, opening night in Philly|
What should one expect from a Valentine’s Day Brawl? Love, roses, a nice slow-dance sax solo, and of course some heartache because this ain’t no Hallmark celebration. This was Josh Ritter’s tell-it-like-it-is idea of Valentine’s Day, and it was quite a party.
I was lucky enough to catch the first two of four of these events — in Philly and Boston. Josh not only brought his crack band but also a three-piece horn section, and set the mood with roses draped on all the mikes.
|Josh and Zack rockin’ the Troc|
The Trocadero in Philadelphia, known locally as just the Troc, is nice old theater with a lot of history and some beautiful architecture, including swooping balconies and detailed columns. It made for an interesting contrast to the sort of cookie-cutter House of Blues in Boston the next night. Both venues had their advantages, the Troc’s was the intimacy of its building. The House of Blues is a bigger venue (2,400 patrons to the Troc’s 1,200) with impeccable sound so the HOB show really felt like a rock SHOW. At both places the crowd was right there for Josh as he led them through love’s travails.
The set lists for the two nights were similar though not the same (see below), and there was plenty of individuality to make them special. For one, Josh, at two points in each show, read out valentine dedications sent in by fans who were going to those shows. The dedications were hilarious, ranging from sweet to bawdy. One person in Boston even proposed through a dedication (and was accepted!).
Since the shows followed similar set lists, I’ll go through the shows together, pointing out the highlights and differences as I go.
Both shows opened with Josh bounding on stage — dressed nattily in a vest over a red shirt with a rose in his lapel and even red socks! — for one of his ultimate love songs (how many of these does he have?), “Bright Smile.” It’s amazing how he grabs the audience’s attention right away… they see him out there alone and they immediately quiet down to hear him. At the Troc, the crowd sang along unobtrusively (mostly, more on this later) to every song. Josh’s voice rang out but underneath you could hear the audience basking in the love of his lyrics.
The band took the stage to roars from the crowds for the next tune. In Philly it was “Long Shadows” followed by “Lillian,” in Boston the order was swapped, and seemed to fit better. “Lillian,” played with rockin’ delight by Josh’s great band is a treat. At HOB, it just roared, a great piano solo by Sam Kassirer, and guitarist Austin Nevins was just on fire all night.
“Southern Pacific” and “The Curse” were next. Beautiful renditions — Josh waltzing by himself to the beautiful piano and bass lines of “The Curse.” This led into the first set of dedications back by the still waltzing music of band. At the Troc, the last one read “Roses are red, violets are blue, hopefully not my balls”… something like that. The crowd was in hysterics.
“Empty Hearts” followed, and then the highlight of both nights: the three-song killer of “Real Long Distance,” “Rattling Locks” and “Harrisburg.” A three-member horn section (trumpet and two saxes) torched these songs, rocking both venues to their core. This is where the HOB shined. Despite the volume and the number of players on stage, you could hear every instrument, crystal-clear. On “Rattling Locks,” bassist Zack Hickman led the charge of musicians, including the horn players, cracking drumsticks together in percussive bliss. If Josh is the emotional leader of the band, Zack is the physical leader, making sure the show runs smoothly, and an incredibly talented musician. “Harrisburg,” one of my all-time favorite tunes, including a very funny Josh story-song interlude that led in and out of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”
The band then brought the crowd down with a beautiful “Folk Bloodbath” before leaving the stage for Josh to work his magic again.
At both shows, Josh opened the solo portion of the sets with “You Don’t Make It Easy, Babe.” In Philly, he dedicated the song to Sarah Palin, Queen of Alaska. He followed this with an acoustic “Thin Blue Flame,” which he didn’t play in Boston. The crowd was hushed as Josh worked his lyrical magic. The two shows continued with “Temptation of Adam” and a “Naked as a Window/Girl in the War” pairing that was amazing. In Boston, he poignantly dedicated “Girl in the War” to the people of Egypt. These songs, to me, really showed the difference in the intimacy of the crowds. In Philly, fans sang along with every word. In fact, they sang beautifully on “Girl in the War” except for one dude who kept shouting the lyrics before they were sung. It was funny at first, annoying by the end and then he was shut down. In Boston, the crowd really came to party. They were polite and sang along with the quiet songs, but lived for the rock.
The band returned to the stage, but not to their instruments for the next song, a lush cover of Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” Sam, Zack, Austin and drummer Liam Hurley stepped up to a side mike to sing harmonies on the chorus. They returned to their instruments for the next set of dedications, backing them with Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” In Boston, this is where the proposal was made. It was pretty cool.
|Matt Douglas’ slow-dance sax solo on “Kathleen”|
Then it was back to rock. “Rumors” and “Right Moves” were blistering. The band was in high gear. The horns reappeared and took these songs to a new level. In Boston, the horn players were totally in to it, dancing and goofing in time to the music.
And then there was “Kathleen,” ever the crowd-pleaser. This time it was intro’d by the band, slow and quiet, as Josh worked the crowd into a lather. First, regaling the crowd with tales of love — from a pigeon’s standpoint. A male pigeon flies down, puffs himself for the females, who basically ignore them. He then warned the crowd there would be slow dance mid-song and promised it wouldn’t be too awkward. Boom. Liam hits the kit and away the band sails into “Kathleen” full-on… and then mid-song the band quiets and Matt Douglas on baritone sax, steps to the front and delivers a jazzy slow-dance solo.
You think you’ve come to the end of the night. There were peaks and breaks and peaks again. But the band played on. “Lantern,” “Change of Time,” and “To the Dogs” in different order (this is Boston’s, and seemed to work best.) On “Lantern,” folks swayed glowsticks to the beat. “To the Dogs” simply rocked, the crowd trying to keep up with the breakneck-speed lyrics.
With that the band left the stage, but of course would be back.
In Boston, Josh unveiled a new song, “Galahad” (there’s an animated video of the song HERE). He didn’t play it in Philly (I think he ran out of time). Scott Hutchison of the band Frightened Rabbit, who was a great opener (need to hear more!), came out to perform an Everly Brothers cover “Stories We Could Tell,” with Josh. Hutchison left, the band came back and ripped through “Snow Is Gone,” a wishful, final valentine to their fans. More than two hours of music finally over, the crowd left jubilantly into the chilly night.
“Temptation of Adam” at The Troc
“Pale Blue Eyes” at the House of Blues”
Setlists for the two shows
The Trocadero, Philadelphia, Feb. 10