Stephanie DePrez | Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Like any hot-blooded American college student, I have made my rounds of the concert scene. I was christened with the Spice Girls world tour, caught my first glimpse of alternative culture at a Flaming Lips concert at Red Rocks and moshed at the Chicago House of Blues when the Finnish symphonic-metal group Nightwish came to town. I’ve seen the Irish folk of Solas and the modern strings of the Kronos Quartet. I’ve seen Sting three times, once with Annie Lennox, once with The Police and once with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. (Hey, we all have That Guy, the musician we somewhat unwittingly inherited from our father and have a devotion to regardless of their modern-day cool factor. And Sting is cool.) I’m not a master concert go-er, but I have seen a few of my favorites in concert, and I know what to expect from an evening of music done live.
So when one of my friends asked if I wanted to go to a Josh Ritter concert, I was a bit hesitant, because I’m not particularly intimate with his music, and I don’t like to shell out cash for something I’m not sure I’ll love. Senior-year interest in creating a “shared Chicago experience” prevailed, and at 5 p.m. last Thursday I found myself packed into a car on my way to Chicago.
Josh Ritter. Have you heard of him? The only reason I have is because I have friends in Ireland, where he has made quite a splash after touring there once a year. He’s American – oh boy, is he American – but his appeal here (honed from developing his own major in American folk music while at college) is only beginning to catch up to his popularity in Wexford. But that didn’t stop the Vic Theater from being packed with fans from all manner of musical subcultures.
The music of Ritter is what happens when someone finds an old miner’s love song, paints it red, white and blue, sprinkles it with indie sparkles and pumps it through a Victrola hooked up to an amp with the volume turned up to 11. I stood in a crowd of tight-denimed hipsters and wine-sipping 30-somethings, marveling at the heterogeneity of Ritter’s appeal. I ran into the perennially-fashionable finance major from my dorm section, as well as two fellow film majors, and was in attendance with my motley crew of theology-heavy Folk Choir homies.
At 7:20 p.m., on the dot, the opening act began with Scott Hutchison, the lead singer from Frightened Rabbit. (“OMG I didn’t know he was the opener! I love Frightened Rabbit!”) Hutchinson fulfilled all manner of expectations, coming on slightly drunk and playing whatever the crowd requested (“I don’t have a set list — just shoot ‘em out and we’ll see where this goes.”) His Scottish lilt added to the authenticity of his guitar slinging, because everyone knows, if you have an accent, you are automatically going to be great in concert. I was satisfied, until I saw what I had been missing.
The second Hutchinson left, Ritter ran on, looking around with big eyes and grabbing his guitar as if the Devil himself were about to steal it. His band quickly joined, and we were off. Ritter stood in the middle of the stage, looking out into the crowd as if we were the greatest revelation of his life, singing to us as if our pleasure were his only desire. I’m not talking a Lady Gaga feed-my-addiction type desire, but something completely beyond what modern concert culture has taught me to expect. Josh Ritter was just happy. Pure, beaming joy radiated from his face as he commanded his guitar and cued his band.
He began to jump up and down when he wasn’t singing, dancing around the stage and egging on his drummer or pianist. There was none of the “I’m so hip I’m going to have a rock moment for myself and you all get the pleasure of watching” business we’ve grown accustomed to in an indie age.
Sometimes, just before Ritter came in, he would stand at the microphone and begin to mouth the next lyrics, so excited to sing them that he couldn’t contain himself. And he was smiling the whole time! Even during the slow, solo ballads, when he stood still at the microphone and crooned to us about a mummy falling in love with a museum curator, or two scientists carving their love into a warhead in a bomb shelter, he did it as if each lyric were a sweet privilege he was given the honor of transmitting to us.
The crowd reacted in suit. People parted so other people could see. Everyone hushed those getting drinks in the back when the music got softer. As we neared the end, Ritter asked us if we would slow dance for him. “Just stick your arms out like Frankenstein and walk towards someone until they dance with you. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone spontaneously started slow dancing?” He began one of his more well-known songs, “Kathleen,” and when the bridge came, the band slowed down and our evening’s leader looked at us expectantly.
Half a measure later, a fly on the wall at the Vic Theater in Chicago had the priceless view of hundreds of couples from all manner of cultural allegiance doing the middle-school two-step.
It was, hands down, the best concert I’ve ever attended. I knew two songs worth of lyrics. I recognized about six others. I listened to the words of songs I’d never heard and marveled at their beauty along with the poet who wrote them. I wasn’t shoved or pushed or made to feel inauthentic because of my lack of previous residence in the Ritterverse.
I attribute this to the man himself, so brimming with joy and marvel at the audience that he could barely contain himself — and sometimes he didn’t. “I want to send you all flowers but I don’t have your addresses.” The tall, sandy-haired musician in a dress shirt and vest with roses woven up his microphone stand gave me the night of my life, not because he knew I wanted to be there, but because he himself wanted me there.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
Contact Stephanie DePrez at firstname.lastname@example.org