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Josh Ritter, John Wesley Harding

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on October 20, 2011


Two men, two acoustic guitars, and quite a bit of good songwriting were on display at the Egg last weekend, in the able hands of Josh Ritter and opener John Wesley Harding.

Each favors lusher soundscapes on record but is unafraid to take the stage with no more than a guitar and the confidence to relate to an audience. In the case of each, the result was a performance of greater power and directness than their records imply. (Another commonality between the two is that each has written and published novels, which were for sale at the merch tables but otherwise did not figure into the evening—a road show incorporating readings from each could be interesting.)

Ritter came out and charmed the pants off the place, so to speak. Beaming a wild smile and oozing buckets of aww-shucksterism, he would have you think he was surprised anyone showed up to see him. He’s the sort who enjoys bantering with the crowd but has nothing particularly interesting (or funny, despite the dutiful guffaws that attended his every musing) to say, but no matter—he seemed fully present and committed throughout a generous, 100-minute set. I’m searching his latest record, So the World Runs Away, for the sort of inspiration I thought I heard at this show, and coming short.

Taking advantage of his quiet, often finger-picked accompaniment, Ritter lowered the volume of his quiet vocals even further than on record, often crossing into speak-singing. He counted on being riveting and pulled it off, rooting the show in a quiet place and sometimes shifting the dynamics to allow the exuberance of “Good Man” or the anthemic melody of “Open Doors” to burst forth. “Change of Time” was more aching than its studio incarnation (weighed down, the latter is, with ponderous backing) and both “Wings” and “Southern Pacific” proved heartbreaking. When Ritter called for the house lights to be turned off completely during one song (and kept there for another), it suited his quiet storm just fine.

Harding featured songs from his just-released album. Twenty-three years in, he remains a pleasant reminder of how satisfying (and non-cloying) a classicist pop approach can be. Since he’s uninterested in adding some sonic bite to complement his frequent lyrical snarl, the solo format offers the only chance to hear his material without all the soft edges and ironically bright colors. The earnest anthem “Sing Your Own Song” opened the set as it does the album, and was followed with the sort of delightful autopsy of a moment in thought at which Harding excels; in this case, a glimpse of a school-days crush sorting out her underwear in the laundromat triggers a flood of memories. “I should have stopped and said hello/But I didn’t,” he sang simply, evoking a world of repressed emotion while resolving to “go back to the mess at home.”

He swings big with his wordplay, which results in plenty of successes but the occasional overreach. “That tree over there is a pylon, but some things you can rely on/There’s a Starbucks where the Starbucks used to be” is a fantastic couplet, but when the second half is then repeated three times each chorus and turns out to also be the name of the song, you begin to wonder how long you’re expected to keep snickering.