Concert Review: Joe Pug & Josh Ritter

This picture of Josh Ritter was not taken Friday night in Knoxville… but it just as easily could have been. You see that expression on Ritter’s face? The one full of energy, emotion, and sheer exuberance? It’s a look he wore through most of his set Friday night at the Bijou Theatre.

I’ll get to Ritter’s set in a bit, but I first need to tell you about the captivating opening set turned in by Chicago singer/songwriter Joe Pug. Pug is an artist I’ve seen getting lots of recognition around the blogosphere for some time now, but I never really took the time to explore his music until I found out he was coming to town. Once I did, I started listening to… and immediately fell in love with… his new album Messenger. His literate songwriting and sparse arrangements combined to make the kind of record that demands your full attention. Joe Pug does not make background music.
For his set Friday night, Pug did his entire performance in a solo acoustic fashion… just vocals, guitar, and harmonica. In this setting, Pug comes off as a pre-plugged-in Bob Dylan, relying on the power of his words rather than the complexity of his performance to enthrall the crowd. It seemed to work as the crowd met each of his tunes with ample applause and remained deathly silent during his actual performances. Hearing Pug’s songs in the wonderful space that is the Bijou Theatre only solidified my respect for him as an artist and served as a perfect lead in for what was to come.
After his set, I met Pug at his merch table and picked up a copy of his debut EP Nation of Heat. Like his live set, Heat is a fully acoustic experience, and I’d like to share one of the tracks from it with you here.
Joe Pug: Hymn 35 (Buy Album)
Now… Josh Ritter. I’ve had opportunities to see him perform in the past, but horrific weather and other events have always conspired to keep me from catching his show. That’s one reason I was so excited for Friday night’s show. The other reason is that Ritter is simply one of the most phenomenally talented songwriters working today in any genre.
He made that immediately apparent by kicking off the show with the the travelogue “Southern Pacifica” from his new album So Runs the World Away. Ritter and his band created beautiful soundscapes as each song led the audience on some new adventure. Whether visiting the Western frontier in “Southern Pacifica,” the Arctic Circle in “Another New World,” or Ritter’s own personal dreamscape in “Change of Time,” the audience was transported along for the ride.
The amazing thing about the night, though, was that Ritter seemed to be enjoying the voyage as much as, if not more than, any of the 700 or so patrons who had bought tickets for the journey. Ritter could hardly contain his energies and enthusiasm on the more upbeat numbers. Fan favorites such as “Rumours,” “To the Dogs or Whoever,” and “Wolves” all found him bouncing around the stage and almost laughing as he delivered some of the lyrics. You could even pick up a smile here and there as Ritter gave readings of two of his darker songs… the tragic love story of “The Curse” and the multiple-murder ballad “Folk Bloodbath.” In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an artist smile as much during a show as I did Friday night.
Ritter’s joy filled every aspect of his set and led to one memorable evening. I don’t think I stopped smiling myself until well after the show was over.
This is a live track from Ritter’s Live at the Record Exchange EP that came out a few years ago. It’s a solo track without the band, but I think it still gives a good feel of the energy he can bring to a performance.
Josh Ritter: Wolves (Buy Album)

6 Responses to “Concert Review: Joe Pug & Josh Ritter”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I loved the show, but did you catch the flub on “Folk Bloodbath”? Also, why'd you skip out so early?

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Saw him in Chicago on Saturday night and I agree with everything you said. I'm not sure if he did at at the show the night before, but before 'Another New World' he had Poe's 'Annabel Lee' read. It somehow managed to add even more to that story told in the song.

  3. I noticed that he seemed to sing a line twice at one point.

    We didn't leave early… we just moved from the front of the theatre to the back. Our seats were right in front of the speakers, and we wanted to give our unborn child's ears a break. My ears were pounding a little bit too… must be getting old.

    Who is this by the way? Are anonymous eyes watching me everywhere I go?

  4. Anonymous 2:

    Josh did have Ray Rizzo do a reading of Annabelle Lee before “Another New World.” I had forgotten how much I used to love that poem… hadn't heard or read it in a long time though.

    For some reason, I really like the word “sepulcher.” It has a nice sound.

  5. Josh's Dad (his Mom was at the show too) read the Annabelle Lee poem at the Pittsburgh show … great touch.

  6. Good Gravy Says:

    I saw Josh and band on this tour a couple of weeks ago in DC at the 9:30 Club. Definitely agree with the review – the joy coming from that stage is infectious. I think his Royal City Band is one of the best live outfits going right now. They really keep it going. Also, the DC date was minus Joe Pug. But Josh's wife's band – Dawn Landes and the Hounds – opened instead. She has her own unique charm and intensity.

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