Once upon a time, there seemed to be a magic surrounding musicians. It was exciting to witness, and there was a divide between artist and fan. There were those who made music and those who listened.
As each new version of American music took hold and made a mark on the consciousness of the country, there were standout artists who pushed their craft, made something new, and changed our culture in the process. From Jim Morrison to Eazy-E, there was a reason so many of us laid down the cash, filled dark auditoriums, and screamed helplessly at the sight of these strange creatures.
I feel like that culture is over. Maybe we are better for it.
Too often we, as the public, are still bombarded with tributes to the greatness of musicians— sweeping magazine articles and wordy, descriptive online reviews, limited edition albums, and low angle photos glorifying the focal point in a room which, many times, just amounts to a person holding a microphone. But is this really necessary?
Is there still any notable divide between artist and fan? Or are we all still going through the motions of an irrelevant structure? I don’t think that structure quite captures the intimate relationship blossoming between those who fill the seats and artists like Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band and his opening act, Her Crooked Heart.
Wednesday night’s show at the Fitzgerald Theater featured performers who bore little distinction between themselves and their audience. In the digital age, anyone with a guitar and a microphone can record an album, and many have achieved success doing so. So, it is strange to see a songwriter like Josh Ritter, who has been in the game for two decades, display such a rapport with his fans, to move with such humility, and to shed any crafted persona for a genuine smile and acknowledgment of his own humanity.
Perhaps he’s just that good. Maybe he has crafted his ‘stage-self’ so intricately that he can turn on the charming, aw-shucks vibrations that dominated the energy in the room, but I don’t think it was an act. I don’t think there were any false feelings or chemical enhancement, at least I hope not. From the moment Ritter stepped on stage, it seemed as though he was happy and grateful to be there.
As someone who isn’t overly familiar with Ritter’s work, my initial impression was pleasant. I’ve caught notice of him only recently, seeing his name pop up in a Joe Hill book or a Jeff Lemire story. His smile is broad and causes his eyes to squint. He has teeth like Thorogood, dresses like Cash, and exudes an attitude that, while more happy-go-lucky, reminds one of Tom Waits. But all of that falls away as he tells stories, makes jokes, and leads the group from one number to the next.
At the head of the show, Ritter’s band entered before him. Perhaps it was a moment of vanity on the artist’s part, wanting to make an entrance, or maybe the opposite. Ambling on to a chant with a hymnal feel, the individual personalities of the Royal City Band had a soft reveal before their frontman took center stage.
Guitarist Josh Kaufman’s smooth style and Jerry Garcia vibe almost mask his proficient, precise work. Keyboardist Sam Kassirer has the cool effect of your best hipster friend. He is effortless in his excellence. Drummer Ray Rizzo puts off the vibe of the neighborhood friend who had the garage where the band can jam, but handles the frequent dynamic changes of Ritter’s songs with bravado and style.
Bassist Zack Hickman, who is all handlebar mustache and suit vest, like a bizarro world Les Claypool who stayed in school and kept his head down, feels more vital and present than a lot of backing rhythm section members. Hickman joined opening act, Her Crooked Heart, for a few numbers earlier in the evening, so his talent and swagger had already been established.
The set started strong, with the members of the band displaying their unobtrusive talent. They played several uptempo numbers before leaving Ritter on stage alone for several songs. In this moment, all pretense fell away and Ritter admitted to being nervous and taking comfort in a stage rug that resembled the one in his parent’s basement, “Only nicer.”
As he played a solo rendition of “Cumberland,” which was a highlight and much more accessible live than it is on record, his adrenaline flowed, accelerating the tempo. Then he played crowd favorites “The Temptation of Adam” and “Snow is Gone,” stopping during the second song to retune.
“I know it’s just folk music,” he explained with a smile. “But it has to be right.”
Opening the night was Rachel Ries playing under the banner of Her Crooked Heart. Don’t let the stage alias fool you into delusions of pretentious ego, Ries is charming and even more accessible than the Royal City gentlemen.
She established her presence with a single guitar and her powerful voice, allowing us all to connect with the emotions behind her thoughts on life, travel, and heartbreak. The words and music were not so much the communicator as her sure, trained, quirky vocal ability. Ries would sustain long beats with skill and ease before accenting a moment with a few tossed-off spoken lyrics.
Between songs, she sipped tequila, talked to the audience about living in the Twin Cities, and pitched her homemade fruit jams. “If you like my tunes, you’ll love my jams.”
“If you want, you can also take me home,” she offered with a wry smile, “on vinyl or cd.”
She also made mention of the choir she helms, Kith+Kin Chorus, which will have a benefit show in March.
The night was filled with an attitude of comfort. The bands humbly offered up their art, and the audience enjoyed a night away from the troubles of work and home, of politics and office gossip. The Royal City Band and Ms. Ries were not trying to change the world, they did not see themselves as better or more successful or more creative than anyone else in the room.
My worry about this attitude, this dropping of ego in the typical power struggle is the devaluation of ambition and any resulting qualification of achievement. I understand that we live in a cluttered landscape where there are always options for our attention. In such an environment, the audience is valued and certain concessions must be made to softer sensibilities. But at what point does humility go too far, losing substance for accessibility?
Ms. Ries mentioned her Patreon page, and I understand the value of such endeavors, but is there an artistic price to be paid when one seeks support and approval from one’s audience/peers and doesn’t recognize a difference between the two?
Much of the material from Ritter and Ries falls under the banner of ‘traditional.’ The themes are as old as humanity: love, loss, addiction, mistakes made and opportunities wasted. But neither group really pushes. It’s easy to compare Ritter to the likes of Waits or Cash, because he draws from the path they laid.
What’s missing, sometimes, is anything new. I don’t want a straight pepper diet, but some spice would be helpful. Ritter talks about his own pain and hardships, but it isn’t anything we haven’t heard before. There is nothing shocking, nothing stirring, nothing that would cause a tight-lipped school marm to exit the room, and also nothing that compels us to persevere.
The strange highwire these new artists walk is the line between humility and mundanity. In providing an escape from harsh realities, a reprieve from our own demons, if art has lost the element that motivates us, then what real purpose does it serve?
I don’t know if, “My partner done me wrong, should I keep on movin’ or head back home?” is really the most critical content at the moment. It’s fine for local boys and backyard bar-b-ques, but when it’s coming from a voice that has such a broad platform, it’s a little underwhelming.
Part of the appeal of any vital artist is the thought that their voice comes to us from a down the road, calling out to us, telling us not to worry, there is peace on the other side of pain. The reason we listen, the reason the stage was offered to these voices, is that they have something to say. If there is no dividing line between audience and stage, if we could say the same things ourselves, why should we listen?
My hope is that maybe the message isn’t as necessary as when Dylan or James Brown sang it. Maybe the struggle isn’t as violent or urgent anymore. Then I can truly kick back, listen to The Gathering, and rest on my laurels. But when I look at the current landscape, with all its political, racial, and sexual tension, sometimes I don’t feel quite right about enjoying a concert where nothing immediate is being discussed.