Josh Ritter + Support Anais Mitchell | Review
Mandela Hall, Belfast • 06 December 2017
By Gerry Walton • Photos: Conor Kerr
Josh Ritter and his Royal City Band provided an early Christmas present to the ears in Mandela Hall, with a stunning show. Ably assisted by Anais Mitchell, surely no one will have left disappointed.
The pre-show tunes were a hint of the quality to come, as a variety of mainly Tom Petty classics were played. Once an in-the-flesh musician took to the stage those who were early enough caught a gem of a set by Anais Mitchell. Her finger-picking guitar style matched with cooed yet biting vocals was a real surprise. Her opener ‘Cosmic American’ was a great start, and ‘The Wedding Song,’ from her folk opera Hadestown kept the levels high.
‘Why We Build The Wall’ felt particularly prescient, talking of “building walls to keep us free,” yet pre-dating the current events in Anais’ homeland, having been released back in 2010 on Hadestown. If this was the support, the main event was bound to be a knockout.
And so it proved to be. Josh’s guitarist, his partial namesake Josh Kaufman, had already taken to the stage with Anais for her closing number, and the response for the rest of the Royal City Band and Josh Ritter was rapturous to say the least.
Leaping straight into ‘Feels Like Lightning,’ a gentle country chugger, Josh had a smile fixed to his face from the very start, and seemed in love with his craft. And why wouldn’t he be? ‘Showboat’ came next, a funk-flecked strutter befitting its title that gave the band room to flex their muscles.
‘New Lover’ got the crowd whooping at some of the lyrics, and the song itself was an open-hearted burying of the hatchet with a former lover. ‘Monster Ballads’ followed, and like many numbers here was met with a church-like singalong.
‘Henrietta, Indiana’ was lead guitarist Josh Kaufman’s time to shine, before ‘Dreams’ cast Josh Ritter as in his most comfortable role of possessed preacher, delivering his rapidfire sermons at a pace the music would never hope to match. It ominously builds with the sort of jazz backing you’d hear in a waiting room before an appointment with Satan – a good thing.
If that sounds a little dark, what came next was a sleepy ambler called ‘Train Go By.’ Josh gave a nice backstory about a garden that was “growing towards the house like an Edgar Allan Poe story, so we moved.”
Despite the rather macabre title of ‘Folk Bloodbath,’ it was in fact an ultra-sweet sounding murder ballad, which again turned the crowd into a congregation singing along to every word.
Any sleepiness that might have been descending (it was a long day for me at least) was well and truly blown away with ‘Snow Is Gone,’ which saw Josh alone but pounding away at his acoustic. He later needed a string change, unsurprisingly, but this was one of the highlights for its pure adrenaline. ‘Me And Jiggs’ and ‘Kathleen’ took things up another notch. The round-mic effect was used brilliantly, with the acoustics really shining at this point, and by now you got the impression the crowd would have let him keep going on forever.
Of course, all good things come to an end, and before long a pounding full-band rendition of ‘Homecoming’ led into the encore. Bassist Zack Hickman regularly stepped up to a double bass through the evening, but here he showed his acoustic chops too in the sweet duet of ‘Hopeful.’
The band came back for ‘Roll On,’ and Anais Mitchell even got a verse, reminding of her talent. With multiple musicians around two microphones, it was another special moment in an evening crammed with them. A singalong finale of ‘Girl In The War’ rounded off one of the gigs of the year, and Josh’s repeated urges of “rock and roll” throughout the night were more than lived up to.