Josh Ritter Brings the American Heartland to Montreal

The Alt-Country Musician Drifts Through Montreal in Support of His Latest Album

Ritter’s set blended fan favourites with songs off of the newest album. Photo Esteban Cuevas

It’s been less than a year since Idaho-born musician Josh Ritter last graced Montreal audiences with his oracular and wordy brand of rock-n-roll, but that didn’t stop fans, both long-time and newly converted, from filling the small theatre at l’Astral on Thursday night.

Though Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band were the main attraction on the bill, some audience members had other priorities. A small group of four live music enthusiasts drove three hours from Ontario to see the (extremely witty and harmonically talented) opening band, Penny and Sparrow.

Ritter opened his set with the quiet “Thunderbolt’s Goodnight” from 2017’s release Gathering, then slowly picked things up with “Good Man” (The Animal Years, 2006) before moving into a compelling rendition of “Ground Don’t Want Me” off the new record.

“What is the body when the soul is flown, has it only been forgotten / I wanna lay down in a field of bones, but an angel guards the garden,” Ritter crooned along with guitarist Josh Kaufman’s poignant and ether-filling electric riffs.

Anxiety about the future is, in Ritter’s capable hands, handled in such an honest way that helps to ease his audience’s minds about the uncertainties of life, both big and small.

While still maintaining some of the romantic lullabies fans have come to expect of Ritter, the new record tends towards the raucously blues-y on numbers like “Old Black Magic,” and at times even ventures into the downright dark and foreboding.

“This is a scary song,” the frontman said on stage, right before launching into “The Torch Committee,” a song that serves as a searing commentary on the corrupt state of our societal institutions and systems.

Ritter performed in Montreal less than a year ago and was welcomed back warmly. Photo Esteban Cuevas

The Royal City Band—consisting of Kaufman on guitar and steel, Sam Kassirer on keys and accordion, Zack Hickman covering bass and strings and Ray Rizzo on percussion—brought the super tight and well connected sound we hear on Fever Breaks to the stage as well, setting the groundwork for the melodic flourishes and mini solos that became sweet spots throughout the set.

Though Fever Breaks is the latest of the 10 studio albums, their set included only four songs from it, instead favouring a selection of both melancholy and buoyant hits from their vast repertoire.

Lovers and friends alike exchanged looks of pure joy as Ritter struck up the first chords on a solo version of the allegorical “Change of Time,” which he then orchestrated into a haunting duet with the audience.

While Ritter shared anecdotes about his hometown, and “those [Montreal] bagels that come straight out of the fire,” the crowd hung onto every word the singer offered up, and were especially thrilled when he began to play the long-time favourite “Kathleen.”

As the band re-joined Ritter on stage for this romantic waltz-y number, they gathered around a single mic—nylon-stringed guitar, accordion, upright bass and tambourine in hand. As it turned out, the unplugged and folk-y version of “Kathleen” contrasted nicely against the amped-up crowd, as they swayed and sang along.

In true Americana form, Ritter sang about the everyday experiences of growing up in a small, north-western town, reminiscing about football games under starry skies, prom nights, and the girls who both loved and eluded him.

Ritter included four songs off of the new album in the show. Photo Esteban Cuevas

Following a more folk tradition, Ritter can’t escape the bigger, more pressing questions that plague us as human beings, penning songs that acknowledge great, societal shifts in the air, and ponder the forces of good and evil that lift us up and pull us down.

With this in mind, the honesty and vivid imagery that shines through Ritter’s poetic narratives has become one of his most beloved traits among fans. Two of such fans from Thursday’s show, Joao Lopes and Viviana Montanaro, follow Ritter for both the imaginary and realness that permeate his lyrical storytelling.

“I’m really excited to hear ‘The Curse,’” Montanaro said before the show, referring to the enchanting and quirky ballad about an archaeologist who falls under the spell of her newly discovered Egyptian mummy—a pre-destined love story of mythological proportions.

Ritter closed the show with an encore featuring “The Curse,” and paired it with a timely and soaring performance of “Snow Is Gone” from the 2003 record Hello Starling.

“Hello blackbird, hello starling, winter’s over be my darling / a long time coming, but now the snow is gone,” Ritter sang, sending his faithful audience off into the Montreal night with love on their minds and the first breath of spring in their hearts.

It was a heck of a show that surely left the whole theatre fully sated. But even so, there’s no doubt everyone will be back for more the next time Josh Ritter comes around.