How could a night of Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band get any better?
It did Tuesday night at the sold-out State Room in Salt Lake City, where the Idaho-born singer-songwriter’s two-hour set was preceded by a consistently entertaining 45-minute solo acoustic set from Ritter’s long-time right-hand man, bassist Zack Hickman.
All in all, it was a night that was filled with Ritter’s smiles and dynamic showmanship, coupled with some of the most compelling and musical songs of the 36-year-old’s generation.
Last summer, Ritter headlined Red Butte Garden, which is about 10 times the size of The State Room. While Ritter and his superb band — Hickman, Sam Kassirer, Austin Nevins and Liam Hurley — can deliver in a large setting, to see them in a more intimate space is where they truly shine. It was my selfish wish to see Ritter once again in a smaller venue, and I got my wish.
Up close, the grins of Ritter get bigger, his pogo-stick style of jumping gets higher, and his unbridled whoops and hollers get louder and more exuberant. Frequently throughout his set, he would exclaim, “This is so cool,” and “This is awesome,” and while I get tired of hearing it from other acts who force the sentiment, I can’t help but believe it when it comes from Ritter’s mouth.
This show was Ritter’s first since the early 2013 release of “The Beast In Its Tracks,” which can be considered his “Blood on the Tracks” album; just as Bob Dylan illustrated his marital strain chillingly in the latter, Ritter’s latest details the unraveling of his marriage, which ended in divorce in 2011, two years after his wedding.
The album’s muted songs were decidely different from what he is most known for: a narrative sense of stories about lovers in a missle silo and a mummy who falls in love with the archaelogist who unearthed him. But in a live setting, the newer songs offered a new perspective on who Ritter is, and that came though Tuesday. We have gotten used to him revealing his mind through his poetry, but with the newer songs, we get a welcome look into his head, where hope springs despite pain and loss.
As usual, The State Room’s acoustics were sterling, and a spartan but classy array of stage lighting never took the focus off Ritter, who looks as he if he having the best night of his life every time you see him. His focus is always on his songs, and the highlights just kept coming, whether it was with his band (“Kathleen,” “Right Moves,” “Joy To You Baby”), just him on the electric guitar (“Change of Time”), or just him on an acoustic guitar (“Temptation of Adam”).
Hickman’s surprise appearance as an opening act proved him to be every bit as appealing as his boss, with humor and charm that endeared him to an audience anxious to see Ritter. With off-kilter but well-played songs about the loneliness of a mimic octupus, the odd tragedies of a 21st century cowboy, and a Mennonite prom where there is no dancing, he showed that he deserves a recording contract of his own.
Just as long as he doesn’t abandon Ritter. Ritter and his band are hopefully together for a very long time.