Josh Ritter
Workplay / Laser’ s Edge; Birmingham, AL

Last year, around the time Josh Ritter’s Animal Years was released, I got a chance to hear him play at Workplay. There was a dilemma, though: Black Heart Procession, whose spell I was then under, was playing the same night at BottleTree with Castanets and The Devics. I was happy as a little songbird, then, when Laser’s Edge, a local independent music retailer, announced that Ritter would be playing in the store several hours before his Workplay show. Unlike most nights in this town, which has begun to offer some tough choices in the way of national touring acts, I got to see Ritter strum his guitar for 30 minutes before I beat it over to BottleTree for BHP.

Halloween night was no less difficult. Celebration, Dragons of Zynth, and local cred-worthy up-and-comers Lonesome Spirit Device were playing a free show at BottleTree in the midst of a Halloween costume contest, where I later discovered that the winner was dressed as a Nikon camera and the award presenters were dressed as Nelson.

Despite my knowledge of all I would be missing on the hipster side of town, however, it’s true that I’ve been spinning the ambitiously named The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter since my promo copy arrived in the mail a few months ago. Also, I love it. I let myself become beguiled by the record’s one sheet, which tells a story of delightful barn recording sessions, and I imagined swaying horns skronking over messy bales of hay and “string sections screamin’ like horses in a barn burnin’ up,” as Ritter sings in “Rumors.”

So a friend and I belted up in our Ginny Weasley and generic cat-with-a-litterbox-filled-with-rolled-oats-and-Tootsie-Rolls costumes, respectively, and made it to Workplay about four songs into Ritter’s set. The band was costumed; there were two instrumentalists with a pink wig and a blue wig, a drummer with a half-mask, a guitar player in some sort of mummy get-up, and Josh Ritter, barefoot, dressed as a Greek god. Wearing a huge, boyish grin, he referred to himself repeatedly as Optimus Prime.

The band was evidently in a great mood, and their onstage banter and jaunty performance suggested as much. I sat with friends and listened intently during the quieter and more reverent songs such as “Girl in the War” and the philosophically lewd “Temptation of Adam” but was excited to run down to the floor and dance foolishly during more upbeat songs like “Night Moves,” “Rumors,” and “Real Long Distance.” For the most part, the audience was not of a like mind, and this is something that is annoying about many singer-songwriters’ live shows. There are usually rows and rows of staring, obsequious fans too enthralled by the songwriter’s poetic turns of phrase to realize that, hey, this is a FUN song. It’s upbeat. and, AND... I can DANCE to it! I mean, admire the lyrics during an intimate listening with iPod and liner notes in the quiet of home, right?

Fortunately, the crowd was a bit stirred up by Ritter’s rendition of the lovely “Kathleen,” which couched an unexpected interlude of Ritter reading (paper in hand) Vincent Price’s rap from “Thriller.” The band mimicked a few of the signature dance moves from the video, and Ritter’s goofy grin once again won over all the twenty-, thirty-, and forty-somethings in the audience. It was quite an amusing spectacle, and something special since it was only to be caught on Halloween night.

Ritter played a brief encore that included “Harrisburg,” one of my favorite songs from 2004’s dynamite Golden Age of Radio, and “Lillian, Egypt” from Animal Years before announcing that the party would be moving to Laser’s Edge for a final midnight in-store performance.

Expecting a fun and casual setting, I dragged my Ginny Weasley to Laser’s Edge and walked in on a hush-hush audience once again adoring to the point of annoyance. We stuck around for the whole performance, which included lots of jokes and acoustic guitar sing-a-longs. Watching everyone try to keep up with Ritter during the wordy “To the Dogs or Whoever” was the highlight, and before we all expected it, the night was over. We bid farewell to “Optimus Prime,” who left a final impression by popping one of my litterbox Tootsie Rolls into his mouth and dousing the “litter” with blue Pixy Stix dust, “messing it up for the other cats,” he said, laughing, with that winning smile.

[Photo: Traci Edwards]

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