If you’ve found yourself on my blog before, then you most likely read the post where I gush over Josh Ritter. Gush might be too minor a word. Lyrically, the guy can ne’er do wrong in my ears. I’m even willing to let slide the occasional musical shortcoming because atop that shortcoming is usually a clever or poignant lyric.
What I wrote in my I’ll-follow-Josh-Ritter-to-the-gates-of-hell album review of The Beast In Its Tracks didn’t say much about the Royal City Band, Ritter’s long-time backing group. For one, bassist Zack Hickman didn’t play on the record, and musically, the album didn’t really push sonic boundaries as much as it did emotional boundaries. The band on the album sounds good. Not transcendent.
The band I saw on stage at the State Theater in Portland (5.8.13), however, was a sonic beast. Trans-friggin-scendent.
My first tip o’ the hat goes to lead guitarist Austin Nevins. The Danelectro wielding guitarist was a standout. I’ve seen him three times now as part of the Royal City Band, and this was the first time he grabbed my attention. His lines were melodic. Simple without being bland. The guy has killer tone and great instincts as to when to hang back and let Ritter’s lyrics shine, and when to rip and take the band to the next sonic level.
And countless times did the band take Ritter’s folk songs to the next level. Each member played with severe intensity. So badass was this band, so full in command of the songs and the collective sound, that they pushed the songs out of the folk category and into rock (not folk-rock, mind you) or at least the indie-rock sound. Thank God they do. It’s an absolute treat to be able to hear both brilliant lyrics and a brilliant band in one sitting. Name me one other act offering that package on the contemporary music scene. (No, seriously, please do. I want to hear it.)
What is most beautiful about Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band is that they all believe deeply in the songs. The band members could be seen singing Ritter’s lyrics even when they weren’t on a mic. And Ritter believes in his band. In the pockets of the songs when he’s not singing, he’s smiling at his bandmates. Nuzzling up to Nevins during a guitar solo. On his knees bowing to Sam Kassir during a keys solo. There is mutual respect between songwriter and band.
I should note that Ritter did rip a solo on his maroon Gretsch during one of the tunes — flexing his own musical muscles.
The State Theater performance was the best I’ve seen from the Royal City Band to date. Maybe Ritter’s recent divorce, made very public in his writing on The Beast In Its Tracks, is the catalyst for the forceful performance of the entire band. An hour into the show, Ritter addressed his divorce in a five-minute monologue. He talked candidly with the audience about the difficulties of marriage — any marriage. He was raw, honest, and human with his audience, just as he is in his songwriting. It was a beautiful moment.
Maybe the fire the Royal City Band is exuding during this tour is their way of showing support for their frontman as he picks up the pieces and tries to move forward with his life and his music. For the final number the band donned construction helmets, perhaps as a symbol for the falling debris in Ritter’s life and their steadfast desire to deliver their music amidst the wreckage.
Whatever the reason for their forceful performance, these guys are a full-burning inferno right now.