BEING THERE: Josh Ritter @ The Troc


The light turned from red to a deep blue when Josh Ritter took the stage and walked up to the mic. Supple, genuine and totally alone, he almost stuttered his first words to Philadelphians: “We’re gonna’ leave it all here.” Philadelphia was not Josh Ritter& the Royal City Band’s last tour city, but it was the city where Ritter’s parents fell in love. Undoubtedly, the talented singer/songwriter is looking back in admiration on his parents’ marriage, which represents a longer-lasting union the one he and his ex-wife, singer/songwriter Dawn Landes, shared. That was just two years ago and a little over a decade into the musician’s career.

Their divorce was the inspiration for Ritter’s The Beast in Its Tracks, the breakup record whose bare and wistful sound was heard frequently last night. Songs like “Hopeful,” shed light on all the addled angles of the breakup and Ritter’s attempts at recovery. Remarkably, it couched the pain of rejection in upbeat, lilting melodies. Cunningly crafted “Nightmares” was even more polarized by the dark content and light, freewheeling tone. In an interlude, the artist related his experience of writing the album and how – after sitting alone and depressed for weeks, cranking out what he called ‘awful, miserable music’ – he reached the turning point of his grief. Disenchanted with marriage, his thoughts turned to all of the other people still hopeful about finding the love of their life. He wondered: don’t they deserve to keep their hope?

Ritter, himself, may still be struggling with acceptance of his loss, but no one could tell what emotions were at work under the musician’s exuberant smile and swoon-inducing eyes. His work was his motivation here. They played other longtime favorites, some from his breakthrough album, Hello Starling. By the time he came around to “In the Dark,” the audience was enraptured. The crew turned off all the stage lights, and Ritter went totally bare-ass acoustic. The performance was full of the sensitivity and the perfectly hemi-spherical smiles that have become Ritter trademarks. Indeed, looking around at the Philadelphian following the artist has gathered made me wonder at the year. With all the international turmoil, national frustration and tragedy, Ritter’s pocket of self-determined optimism was maybe just what we all needed. — BRANDON LAFVING