Ritter drew a near sell-out crowd — about 1,100 fans — Friday night at Liberty Hall in Lawrence. It was by far his biggest audience in Lawrence, a place he knows so well he wrote a song about it.
Some of the credit for the crowd's size goes to the opener. Scott Hutchison delivered a 40-minute solo-acoustic set that included plenty of songs by Frightened Rabbit, the band he fronts, including “My Backwards Walk” and “Heads Roll Off.” The highlight: “Poke,” a savage breakup song that he performed unamplified, away from the microphones, to a stilled theater.
Ritter served up a two-hour joyride through a discography that goes back 12 years and comprises six studio albums. He played nearly two dozen songs, including two covers: a solo/acoustic version of the Velvet Undergounds’ “Pale Blue Eyes” and, with Hutchison, a ragged version of the Everly Brothers’ “Stories We Could Tell.”
Ritter is a crafty and accomplished songwriter, in several veins: John Prine, Patty Griffin, Conor Oberst, David Gray and, as a friend pointed out after the show, a young Steve Forbert.
His studio albums show off Ritter’s lyrical gifts, but not the kind of vibe he can stir up live, with a crack four-piece band. It’s the kind of vibe you get from Springsteen or Jesse Malin, one that arouses a tide of energy and exuberance that sweeps the room. Resistance is difficult, if not futile. It’s like trying not to get wet while white-water rafting.
That mood was altered by several slower, acoustic numbers, like the lovely and loping “Southern Pacifica” and “Change of Time” (which included some artful audience participation) and by the three-song solo/acoustic set toward the middle of the show.
Those moments set up the bigger, more dynamic songs, like the jaunty country/blues tune “Lillian, Egypt” and the rollicking closer, “To The Dogs (Or Whoever),” which gallops to a tempo that recalls John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
It was all as well-orchestrated as it was well-executed. Throughout most of it, but especially on those meatier anthems, Ritter beamed like a man who knows he’s blessed to be doing what he loves most and to be doing it so well.
Josh Ritter set list: Every Time I See Your Face; Good Man; Lillian, Egypt; Southern Pacifica; Folk Bloodbath; Empty Hearts; Snow Is Gone; Real Long Distance; Rattling Locks; Harrisburg; The Curse; You Don’t Make It Easy, Babe; Galahad; Thin Blue Flame; Pale Blue Eyes; Rumors; Right Moves; Kathleen; Lantern; Change of Time. Encore: Lawrence, KS (Leave This World Behind); Stories We Could Tell; To The Dogs (or Whoever).