Josh Ritter connects

May 6, 2008

josh “I used to live on Prescott,” acclaimed singer and songwriter Josh Ritter tells me on the phone. I tell him I live nearby in Northeast Portland. We’re chatting like people who might have passed in the grocery aisle and nodded a hello but now are finally getting to know each other.

I’m trying not to come across as a blithering groupie but probably failing. It’s 10:30 Saturday night. I’m at home, and Josh — were buds now, right? — is in a parking lot outside a bar in Athens, Georgia, where he’s just performed. According to a reliable source (my daughter, Erin), Josh is sipping a drink and still sweat-drenched from another signature electric performance. For an hour he’s been greeting fans, posing for pictures, signing autographs, and doing a lot of hugging. And reveling in it.

Attend a Josh Ritter concert — Suzame and I did at the Aladdin Theatre last year — and you’ll sense that he doesn’t want to break his connection with the audience just because the show ends. Which helps explain why the Moscow, Idaho native is willing to talk to a stranger across the country while still surrounded by fans waiting for their time with him.

Seeing a great band in a small venue does it for me like few things do. What I revel in are performers who crave the audience, feeding off its desire for a bond with them, a bond that transcends the music. I know the music will be good. I don’t know whether the artists will sincerely care about the audience. Will they give themselves?

From the moment Josh and his band mates walked onto stage at the Aladdin, I knew they wanted to be there more than anywhere else. Putting it to words can’t capture the feeling of the experience. Josh’s passion for performing, evident in his spotlight smile and imagery of his songs, was a current in the dark, pulling us all closer. It made great music better.

I stumbled upon Josh’s music via an odd route: Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post’s military affairs writer. I’d read his book Fiasco about the Iraq war and then heard him interviewed on NPR. He brought along Josh, whose music he discovered while writing the book. The antiwar themes in Josh’s 2006 CD Animal Years touched him, especially this recurring line from “Girl in the War“:

. . . man I wonder what it is we done.

I raved to Erin about the Aladdin concert. She saw Josh a short time later. Then a week ago she said she was going to Athens with friends to see him in a much smaller venue. She swore she would talk to him. I’ve learned not to doubt Erin when she has that tone in her voice.

During the concert she sent me text messages, including “I’m only five feet away” from the stage. And then she phoned, first with a play by play as she moved closer to Josh along an impromptu receiving line there in the parking lot. I heard her ask him, “Would you mind talking to my dad. He lives in Portland, Oregon.”

We talk for five minutes. I tell him we’re going to Boise to see him perform with Andrew Bird in July. “That’s going to be a great show,” he says. I know he’s smiling.

As Josh is about to hang up, I blurt out: “I love the messages in your songs.” He thanks me, adding: “Your daughter’s beautiful.”