It’s a sweltering night in London and the usually cold stone of the Union Chapel offers little in the way of relief: it’s hot everywhere. Chris Turpin, one half Ida Mae, has broken a sweat before their set has even begun. It’s the second of two consecutive headline shows at the venue for Josh Ritter with the Norwich duo in support. Packing not one but two National guitars, the pair are quick to demonstrate their powerful, groove-laden blues. Turpin’s husky gospel passion is augmented by Stephanie Jean Ward’s pin-point harmonies, delivered with all the righteous sass of a true soul diva. Ida Mae have been based in Nashville since cutting their debut ‘Chasing Lights’ with Ethan Johns, and have been honing their craft across the States. As a result, their performance tonight is firmly in the pocket. From the relative smoothness of ‘Released’ through the rowdy stomp of ‘Reaching’ to the brooding of ‘Chasing Lights’ itself, Ida Mae’s tight-knit set goes down a storm with Josh Ritter’s crowd and packs a serious punch; the knockout blow coming in the form of ‘Sick In Love’, a blues so swampy I’m minded to go directly home and shower.
The Union Chapel is by far the most civilised of London’s music venues. Example one: in the intermission ushers float around proffering much-needed ice cream. People mill affably; they say please, thank you and excuse me in all the right places and over at the stage, things look like they’re actually following some sort of plan (and that was examples two and three, right there). The stained glass dims as the punishing sun outside beats a retreat at last and Josh Ritter and his Royal City Band take the stage with ‘Idaho’, its bowed upright bass and imperceptibly swelling guitars throwing a hush over a rapt congregation. The song unfurls with creeping organ and malleted drums, making such a sublime start to the set that I’d have gone home happy had it ended there and then. Of course, it was barely the beginning; the boys wasted no time in blazing out their chops proper for the textbook Americana of ‘Jiggs’ a song from the opposite end of Mr Ritter’s twenty-year career. The Royal City Band really isn’t the sort of outfit any right-minded singer-songwriter would kick out of bed and their easy chemistry is evident as attention is turned to the new record, the Jason Isbell-produced Fever Breaks. The gathering gallop of ‘On The Water’ and ‘Ground Don’t Want Me’ follow and see Ritter’s shoe-shuffling, verse-swallowing nerves settle.
The more upbeat numbers don’t always translate to the religious experience I crave from a gig but the fingerpicking and snarled verses of ‘Torch Committee’ come much closer. A song as perfectly prescient and petrifying as this goes some way to justify the comparisons that place Ritter alongside Dylan and Springsteen as a treasured, incisive American balladeer.
‘Lantern’ (one of many songs from 2010’s So Runs The World Away) offers a lot more in the way of hope for humanity before the band take a break, leaving Ritter to a short solo segment which ends with a new song ‘Gospel of Mary’, a devastating depiction of the journey of a family of refugees. It’s a sobering and emotional moment before the band return for the glorious vocal harmonies of ‘Girl In The War’, the handclaps of ‘Homecoming’ and a welcome lightening of mood.
All five members of the band then take themselves up to the pulpit and cram themselves together for a fun three-song acoustic set which includes a giddy cover of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘Old Old Fashioned’, a song that is all elbows in a place with no elbow room. The gentlemen return to their amplifiers for ‘Blazing Highway Home’ and ‘Losing Battles’ - both from the new record - before permitting themselves the indulgence of tearing it up on the well-received ‘Getting Ready to Get Down’.
The generously-sized set draws to a close with the waltzing piano of ‘The Curse’, which earns Ritter and co. a deserved standing ovation. The venue curfew has passed by this point so Josh promptly dashes back for a stirring solo encore of ‘All Some Kind of Dream’. It’s a song that, like so many others on Fever Breaks, offers up an almost naïve hope in the face of all our modern-world despair. It’s this hope - essentially that human kindness can prevail in the darkest of times - that seems to fuel much of Josh Ritter’s performance this evening. It explains why his fans find him so endearing and so magnetic. His modest but gleeful appreciation for his audience - along with his pleas for us to “take care of each other” - paints a picture of an idealist but it’s an idealism underscored by an uncommon lyrical depth. Josh Ritter’s quietly damning appraisals of the state of the world bring him into focus tonight not simply as an American singer-songwriter of some note but as an important voice for our time.
Review by Rich Barnard.