Idaho native Josh Ritter ran through more than 20 songs Wednesday at the Egg’s sold-out Swyer Theater, mostly fun tunes, mostly upbeat, all with an eye for airplay.
He wears a big grin on stage and seems to have endless fun singing and playing. While his grin disappears during some of the songs, it sometimes stays, even through sad tunes like “Apple Blossom.”
Early on, during “So Long So High,” he stepped away from the mic, fell to his knees and howled up to the roof before shouting out the final verse, smiling through it all, like he was enjoying the gimmick as much as anyone. It was real hard not to like him instantly.
Ritter opened the show with a quick ditty called “Evil Eye,” then “Bonfire,” which felt like an early Paul Simon song, and then the first familiar one, “Good Man.”
The sold-out theater stayed oddly still through the quick tempos and hoppy beats, though the crowd showed its enthusiasm between songs.
Ritter is more popular in Ireland, oddly enough, where there even exists a Josh Ritter cover band — Cork.
The four-man band left the stage for Ritter to sing a soft, pretty “Hopeful for Me,” then a meditative oldie about Stag-o-lee and other staples called “Folk Bloodbath.” Ritter brought the volume down to silence and whispered the final verse with eyes shut, everyone attentive, the kind of moment the Swyer Theater was made for.
Ritter said that many of the songs he was playing he had never performed before. They were all good, and the crowd offered hearty applause but nothing compared to what they offered when he played the stuff they knew.
He told us that he moved several years ago to New York City, where he learned that everyone in New York “seems determined to change Albany.”
The screams finally came when he started to strum “Lillian, Egypt.” He and his band turned it up a bit for this. However, afterwards, rather than ride a little momentum, he went right back to a solo ballad, “The Temptation of Adam,” a gentle contemplative tune, like Leonard Cohen doing pop. He could have used a hand-clapping fun one right there.
Then came the energy of “Harrisburg,” which is about as heavy as he gets, then the equally-strong “Right Moves.” After the crowd happily settled, he humbly asked the rhetorical question, “Is it going alright for you?”
Ritter is a simple, wonderfully accessible songwriter who continues to solidify his niche fans, as if he inherited Steve Forbert’s corner of the urban cowboy-rock market. There are no tricks or surprise turns, just good stories with easy melodies and a likeable guy delivering them. That’s what he presented Wednesday night.
The English band The Dunwells opened the show. Five lads — three strummers, a bassist and a percussionist — all sang pretty much all songs. The vocal-driven band was part American roots music, with some “boy-band” like harmonies. Playing on the first night of a U.S. tour, they easily held the crowd for their 35 minutes.
Led by brothers Joseph and David Dunwell, with cousin Jonny Lamb on percussion, the band played through its first album with “Blind Sighted Faith,” “I Could Be a King,” “Goodnight My City” and “Follow the Road.” They worked hard at their folk set and seemed in it to win it, so, given their youth, perhaps we’ll see them again in a bigger way.