Words & Images by: Lara Purvis
Josh Ritter :: 02.13.07 :: Black Sheep Inn :: Wakefield, Ottawa
Every city needs a live music venue like the Black Sheep Inn. Located just outside of Canada's capital city, Ottawa, in picturesque Wakefield, the Black Sheep has always been the place for talented Canadian bands and singer-songwriters. But this show was different. The place was packed, every chair taken, and people lined the walls. Jill Barber, one of the aforementioned Canadian singer-songwriters was opening. Her sweet, creamy voice warmed up the place and gentled an expectant crowd who were waiting for American singer-songwriter, Josh Ritter.
Josh Ritter :: 02.13 :: Ottawa
He took the stage with a modest smile, and opened with the heartfelt "Best for the Best" and the clapping, whistling crowd was stilled. They were completely and utterly quiet, like nothing this writer has ever seen before. Save for Ritter's inviting voice and the gentle strumming of his guitar there was not a sound to be heard. People barely shifted. No one headed for the bar. No one whispered. It was almost eerie. Their eyes were on the singer, the only movements a smile on their lips, a gentle nodding of the head.
Ritter is a singer-songwriter who exploded onto the scene with his last album, The Animal Years. His previous albums, Hello Starling and Golden Age of Radio, were impressive examples of the genre but The Animal Years was in another league, propelling Ritter onto many a "Best of" list in 2006 and building on his already loyal following in the U.S. and Ireland.
It was songs like the bold, powerful "Wolves" that did it. And, of course, the two songs everyone talked about - the politically charged "Girl in the War" and "Thin Blue Flame." Both selections deal with the current state of affairs in the U.S. and Iraq, religion and government all carefully wrapped in metaphor and imagery.
Josh Ritter :: 02.13 :: Ottawa
Ask Ritter if he's a political singer and he'll vehemently deny it, but his reasoning is fair. When he says, "It's easy to be cynical about songwriting. There's a lot of money to be made singing about the war," one realizes he's sincere in his concern about being labeled a political singer. He doesn't, for a moment, want to profit from a war he's unsure about.
As Ritter stood onstage, guitar in hand, he didn't shy away from his political leanings nor the fact that he may have been the only American in a room of Canadians. He embraced both. Straying from the setlist at his feet, he dedicated a song ("You don't make it easy Babe") to Dick Cheney and laughed with the crowd who roared when he told them they didn't know the softer side of Dick like he did. Smiling slyly, Ritter inserted Cheney's name after the line, "I'm trying hard to love you – you don't make it easy, Dick."
Jill Barber & Josh Ritter :: 02.13 :: Ottawa
Songs like "Wolves" and "Thin Blue Flame" had the potential to lose something without the power of a full band but the intimate solo energy brought a fragility that worked well in the dim light. The hopeful "Snow is Gone" and a tender duet with Jill Barber, were appreciated by the room of Canadians who faced 20-degrees below zero centigrade weather outside.
The encore began with "Bone of Song" but the last track of the night was a traditional Irish folk tune, "Parting Glass." Ritter stepped away from the microphone and stood beside it with a drink in hand. Then slowly, bravely, he sang a capella, with grateful sips taken between verses.
It's not often that you see a show that seems too good to be true. And, I'm the first to admit that over the years cynicism has crept into my watchful eyes. But, this special, so quiet night at the Black Sheep Inn was more than a touch magical. I'm willing to leave it at that.
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