Ten years ago, I sat on the floor in Auntie Annie’s with David and Aoife and B and watched Josh Ritter in a terrible yellow corduroy suit being stunningly happy about life and singing his way solo through three albums and then stick around and chat and sign things and be lovely to B, who was newly arrived in Ireland and feeling victimised by the climate. And I fell hard for ‘Leaves and Kings’, and everyone fluffed it on the last chorus of ‘Snow Is Gone‘ and he corpsed hugely on ‘that new thing you’ve got/I’ve got no clue what it’s for‘. Because his sense of humour is way better than his poker face. The one he hasn’t got. It was amazing.
Friday night, I was in Vicar Street with my sisters and it may have been the best gig he’s done. Wednesday, I was in the Mandela with Sarah and Ruth and he rescued a truly awful day by sheer enthusiasm. In between, he’s acquired a full band, the band has acquired a name, I have become one of those scary people who goes to every show and the terrible suit has hopefully gone to it’s eternal rest. He still can’t keep a straight face, and we still can’t get the last chorus of ‘Snow Is Gone’ right.
They haven’t played the Mandela Hall before. It’s a large, low, mostly round, black room with a high stage and a balcony that comes barely above eye-level of the performers. Bear pit doesn’t even come into it. It inspired some comment.
“And later on, there’ll be crocodile wrestling down here. You’ll probably want to move back.”
They were taping this one for the radio, leading to some trepidation over ‘Galahad
‘, which was cut admirably short by Heckler #1:
Josh – “This song. Well. This show is being recorded for the radio and I don’t think this is making the cut.”
Heckler #1 – “Fuck the radio!”
Josh – “Yeah!”
Then he got to the bit about Guinevere and the stableboys and Heckler #2 struck, but the man wasn’t falling for it:
Heckler #2 – “What’s a handjob?’
Josh – *dies* “Ask the person the next to you.”
Ask the person next to you
I like how the new album has settled into the set. This time last year nobody knew it well enough and the band hadn’t been playing it long enough to make the jumps in mood flow, and weren’t looking completely happy with ‘Rattling Locks
‘, and ‘Lantern
‘ didn’t work properly because none of us could keep up. This year, everybody knows exactly what they’re supposed to be doing and can therefore not do it with style. They’re on fire. They’re also still on a mission to reinstate the slowset and banish romantic awkardness during ‘Kathleen
‘. It’s very sweet. Almost as sweet as Josh waltzing with his guitar. It’s a really hot guitar, y’know?
Despite the change of venue, certain rituals remain. There is a strategic pause in ‘Rumours
‘ for the yell of ‘It was fine when it left!’. The collar goes up for ‘Lillian Egypt
‘, even if we’re in the Mandela and the setting isn’t quite as deliciously period and frock-coated as the Empire. The tour bus and the Belfast-Stranraer ferry get thoroughly slandered. The support comes back for one more song – we missed her set, so it was good to hear her at least a little – and ‘Right Moves
‘ and ‘To The Dogs Or Whoever
‘ got loud enough that there was whinging from people watching football in the Bunatee, which is how you know it was a good gig, even if you got there late and were way down the back and couldn’t see half the band.
And the Royal City Band
Vicar Street. Oh, Vicar Street. Every time I walk in I feel like a traitor to the Empire. Especially this time. I got tickets for Friday night for my sisters for Christmas, for I am a sneaky ideas-jacker. So I got in about five, and we meandered back to Em’s and had tea and minor drama in the shape of the Guards doing a drugs bust up the road in a very leisurely manner, and then we meandered down to Vicar Street in the sunset, with the bell-ringing practice in Christ Church echoing over the road.
Vicar Street is one of those fantastically warm venues where sometimes the magic happens. You can get 1500 people into Vicar Street. Not everyone can get 1500 people to slow-dance at once in Vicar Street. Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band could probably get them to try and stand on their heads, but they haven’t thought of that yet. They call Vicar Street gigs coming home.
Tift Merritt was their support for this tour. She is teeny and awesome and endearingly cautious – when she came forward to sing unplugged she carefully tagged the tallest guy in the front row before she did anything else: ‘If I fall off the stage, you have to catch me, Ok?’ Judging by the hat-tipping and hugging the band think she’s awesome too.
‘I wore my favourite green dress for you guys. Is that appropriate?’ ‘We love your green dress!’
And then Josh bounced on and straight into ‘Good Man
‘ and we were off. Love song to a guitar, to a girl, to the movies. All the songs. All the dancing. All the spinning in circles and putting the heart across the front row.
I believe that we’re the good guys
Josh is by himself brilliant. Josh-and-the-band is a whole other level, something of which he’s fully aware and makes a point of reminding everyone as much as he can. ‘My awesome band!’ was said almost as many times as ‘Thank you for coming out tonight.’ They’re a great band. They’re stunningly good at what they do, and they’re having such a good time doing it. I love that they all seem to have subscribed firmly to the ‘for the love of it’ side of things and I love that they’ve found a perfect reason to wear waistcoats all the time and are working it and I love that when they line up to do ‘Pale Blue Eyes
‘ they look a lot like guilty schoolboys waiting outside the Master’s office.
Zack Hickman has been simply getting more awesome every time he walks on the stage for about nine years now, except for the bits where he and Josh are being enormous dorks. And when he’s not being enormously cool playing the bass, he’s playing the audience instead. Because we do what he wants on a nod and a gesture and I’m never sure if it’s sheer force of personality or he’s just got us that well trained.
Zack Hickman is cooler than you
Austin Nevins is one of those people who concentrates fearsomely on what he’s doing and pointedly ignores the ridiculousness going on around him. It usually works right up until a) he gets a duelling banjos moment, when he shows off in style, or b) Josh forgets the concept of a harmonica stand and spends a lot of the bridge trying to remember which pocket he put his harmonica in. This time. I’ve never seen someone faceplam without actually doing the motions before.
Black hole, black hole
Sam Kassirer and Liam Hurley have their own wee thing going on down the back, between the organ and the drums. I have no idea what’s going on, but they’re enjoying themselves. Sam gets to play percussion on ‘Rattling Locks’. Given that the drums are set up for Liam, who’s about two foot shorter and sitting down, he’s being bent double for most of the song and he really doesn’t seem to mind. He’s also allegedly conducting a war against Tift Merritt, but there’s an awful lot of hugging going on for an Epic Feud. Liam sings along to everything, even though he isn’t miked for voice and then he pops up and down like a jack-in-the-box when he wants to hit something with particular emphasis and when he’s not doing either of those he’s bopping along grinning. Our Ruth wants to keep him.
They’re playing ‘Bad Actress
‘ again, which is a song I’m lukewarm about on the album but absolutely works for me (and by the sound of it, everyone else) live. Hadn’t heard it in years and I think both song and singer are better now. I think some songs even their writers grow into. The utterly infectious glee when people start singing along hasn’t changed, though. Nor has the story-telling during ‘Harrisburg
‘. In Belfast, it was about the ferry sinking and having to paddle to the palm-lined shores of the docks, in Dublin, it was a wild riff off Macbeth with bonus chilling sound effects: “And it’s a beautiful day, perfect, and you’re riding along with you friend the Thane of Cawdor, and you meet the witches, and it’s all good, and later you’re at the dinner table and you’re seeing daggers and it all goes downhill from there…”
Downhill from there
He cracked out ‘In The Dark
‘ as well, after ‘Girl in the War
‘, lights out and unplugged, which was eerily gorgeous until he turned on a dime and started everyone on “Hidey hidey hey, hidey hidey ho!” Because he is actually four and so are we and I think it broke people. In the helpless, laughing so hard you’re propped up on the person beside you but still trying to sing way. And then he explained, deadly earnest, how they can’t play ‘Galahad’ in Alabama because ‘you can’t tell them there’s no Kenny Rodgers in heaven’. He’s absolutely terrible and you couldn’t have him any other way.
A hard song to play in Alabama
And then, and then, and then we didn’t screw up ‘Snow Is Gone’ and we were right up against the edge of the curfew, and Tift came back to play ‘Another World’ and the Epic Feud was suspended for her to share the mic with Sam for the last two songs and oh, they didn’t play everything I wanted but you couldn’t get it into a set and they ended on ‘To The Dogs Or Whoever’ and it was amazing. And I danced with my sisters and hugged Elaine and teased her wee brother and fell over people’s bags, and sang and sang and sang and these guys just make me so happy, I can’t explain it. It just is.