Josh Ritter Brings Folk-Rock to Riviera Theatre

Chicago is bursting with mountain-longing, Colorado-fantasizing, loft-living 20-somethings who are familiar with our beloved, original musicians (I’m thinking Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead). These Chicago hipsters and yuppies itching for that folk-rock sound attended a performance by folk artist Josh Ritter Jan. 29 at The Riviera (4746 N. Ravine Ave.), where he delighted the crowd with his multi-faceted country, roots-rock, folk, electronica and bluegrass style.

From his chatty and wordy lyrics to his religious metaphors and home-grown storylines, Ritter’s music resembles John Mellencamp at times and Macklemore at others.

His newest album Sermon on the Rocks tells stories with each song, narrating both his life and the lives of fictional others. Their settings include backyards, bone-yards, mill-towns, the Dead Sea and the Garden of Eden. Their characters are infidels, jezebels and enticing girls who “aren’t like other girls,” and they offer advice: “When you get damned in the popular opinion, it’s just another damn of the damns you’re not giving.”

Some songs feature new, electronic, ambient sounds, but don’t worry, the album as a whole is still rooted in Ritter’s folksy past.

madiequoteClad in paint-splattered coveralls (the same ones on his album cover and the same ones he wore on Conan O’Brien a few nights earlier), Ritter took the stage around 8:45 p.m., after folk music group Elephant Revival opened, with a beaming smile and slightly childish, giddy bouncing motions.

He opened the show with an old song titled “Idaho,” from his 2006 album The Animal Years, which led into “Birds of the Meadow” from Sermon on the Rocks. As one of the new songs he seemed to have experimented with style-wise, it felt eerie and almost rocker-ish.

The next song he played, “Young Moses,” was more like his old music, though. It was a bit faster than I remembered, but it achieved a certain pulse and vibration that satisfied the audience. People bobbed their heads and moved freely while the folksy beat pulled them along.

Early on, he mixed a rendition of Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” into his music, starting off quiet, tranquil and mountain-esque before taking a louder, bang-ier turn. I preferred it at the start.

He then tackled “Cumberland” and “Henrietta, Indiana” — both stomping, country beats, slightly evocative of Lyle Lovett or John Mellencamp. Then, during “Where the Night Goes,” I began to feel a void. I began to feel like the loud, full band (however talented and in-sync) was taking away from his music.

While the crowd consistently responded well to his newer songs, they exploded when he slid in some of his earlier music. They went wild when he opened with “Idaho” and closed with “Good Man,” both off his 2006 album The Animal Years, and exalted later on for “Right Moves,” “The Temptation of Adam” and “To the Dogs of Whoever” from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007).

“Snow is Gone” and (especially) “Kathleen” from Hello Starling (2003) may have been his biggest hits of the night. Both were more folk, less rock.

Wrapping “Kathleen” up around 10 p.m., Ritter shouted, “This is a dream come true, Chicago. Thank you very much!” and did a little happy dance.

He finally got to his new album’s single, “Ready to Get Down” — the epitome of his chatty, quick-paced, nearly rap-like style. Then, after “Homecoming,” (arguably his most popular from the new album, judging from the audience’s reaction), the band left the stage.

Standing and begging, the crowd called him back out — this time solo. He delicately picked at his guitar, singing “Change of Time” from his 2010 album So Runs the World Away, and finally, I heard what I had been missing the entire time: the words, his eccentric voice.

Once finished, his band came back onstage, bringing along loud noise and suppressing his lyrics again. After a third encore of sorts, audience members flooded the streets around 10:30 p.m.

Throughout the night, the band boasted power and abruption — crescendos and decrescendos and fermatas, oh my. But his lyrics boast depth. His lyrics are the best (and, perhaps most legendary) component of his songs. And they were drowned out and unheard.

But forgotten? I don’t think so. At one point, during a guitar solo, Ritter knelt down on the stage, facing the keyboardist (also his producer) almost like he was praying, paying tribute to the religious metaphors in his songs and the small-town, blue-collar, American lyrics he writes — however hushed they might have been.

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