By Sean Titone
November 30, 2016
He may not be the folk hero we deserve, but in these weird, uncertain and divisive times, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter is the folk hero we so desperately need. His unflinching joy, lyrical finesse and mastery of a nuanced protest song are a balm to heal the wounds many in this country are currently nursing. He arrives in Charlotte this Friday at the McGlohon Theater for a rare solo performance, and the heavenly acoustics of the former church sanctuary turned live music venue should be the perfect setting to highlight his intricately written songs. After all, a Josh Ritter concert is a lot like going to church. He testifies before us, at times with Biblical imagery. He makes us cry with his heart beating proudly and openly on his sleeve. He makes us laugh with his clever wordplay and between-song banter, and he causes us to rise up from our seats to dance when the music deems it. A critical darling since his self-titled debut in 1999, Ritter has eight studio albums under his belt and fervent fans in Stephen King, Cameron Crowe, and author Dennis Lehane, while Paste named him one of the “100 Greatest Living Songwriters.”
Ritter’s most recent studio album, Sermon on the Rocks, is a jubilant affair and contains some of his most sonically adventurous material, though the upbeat nature of the songs masks rather heady topics like the apocalypse and love gone wrong. In his words, Ritter describes the songwriting on this particular batch of tunes as “messianic oracular honky-tonk,” a spectacular turn of phrase so intriguing it feels impossible to ignore. Leadoff track “Birds of the Meadow” is a worthy addition to his growing library of songs about the end of the world. The driving, glitchy number shows Ritter doing his best Leonard Cohen imitation, intoning, “fire is coming, fire is coming,” and we’d be wise to take heed of his words.
Ritter recently announced online that he’s riding a fruitful wave of creativity, so fans can expect to hear some new songs at his upcoming solo shows. And since Sermon came out over a year ago, the tracks off that record should sound especially lived in. After performing live for over 15 years in nearly every setting imaginable, from small clubs to Radio City Music Hall to huge outdoor festivals, Ritter knows how to work a crowd and he exudes confidence and charisma on stage, night after night. On this cold December night in uptown Charlotte, with only a guitar in hand, the power in his performance will come not just from his strumming and picking, but also from his timeless narrative lyrics that could write a hundred novels. And, now more than ever, it’s time we look to artists like Ritter to bridge the widening chasm of our divides with their music and shine a light when it seems like there is only darkness ahead.