Located southwest of Cleveland, Ohio, my alma mater, Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music, enrolls less than 3,000 students annually. Its small size makes all the more remarkable the number of musicians who’ve attended. In just a few short years in the mid-to-late ’90s, indie darling Jason Molina (who led the bands Song: Ohia and Magnolia Electronic Company); Rhiannon Giddens, who just won the Pulitzer Prize in music for her contemporary opera, Omar; and singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, who recently played the Lincoln Theatre with his Royal City Band, all graduated. (Other musicians who went to Oberlin include Marc Cohn, Liz Phair, and Lucy Wainwright-Roche, to name just a few.)
A native of Moscow, Idaho, Ritter caught the music bug listening to his parents’ copy of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, buying a guitar at K-Mart and starting to play. It was at Oberlin, though, that he dedicated himself to music as a career. He’d planned to study neuroscience (both of his parents were neuroscientists), but he he changed his major to one of his own design in folklore. Before graduating in 1999, he recorded his self-titled in a campus studio.
Ritter has come a long way from that early, stripped-down LP, filling out his sound to include influences not just from folk, but from rock, country, and blues. That was evident in his set-up with the Royal City Band at the Lincoln Theatre in DC on May 17. His band included a backing vocalist and a saxophone. I was also struck throughout the set at the amount of humor and wit in Josh’s songs, which frequently had the audience chuckling.
Spectral Lines, Josh’s most recent LP, came out of the end of last month, and the set began with one of the new songs, “Sawgrass,” followed by another cut from the record, “For Your Soul.” Three more songs from the album, “Horse No Rider,” “Black Crown,” and “Strong Swimmer” made it into the show.
In one of the evening’s more emotional moments, Josh read dedications that some of his fans audience had written. I was struck by one, in particular, from a husband to his wife, that spoke of the hard times they had been through, and the hope they had found in Josh’s music. While this was a full band show, there were some more intimate moments when the stage was less crowded. He played “Truth Is a Dimension” and “Strangers” accompanied by just his guitarist, and, later in the set, he did “Theophany” solo.
Watch Josh Ritter perform “Truth Is A Dimension (Both Invisible and Blinding)” for WNRN Studios on YouTube:
They also played a number of old favorites: “Wolves,” “Folk Bloodbath,” “Right Moves,” “Here At The Right Time,” “Kathleen,” “Losing Battles,” “Homecoming,” “Harrisburg/Lighthouse Fire,” and “Getting Ready to Get Down.” Before “For The Dogs,” he told the audience, “I feel like, sometimes, we have time constraints and I want to get in as many words as possible.” The set closed with “Someday,” and he and his band returned for an encore, playing “The Curse” and “Lillian, Egypt.”
A native of Johnson City, Tennessee, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah, who opened the show, is an artist to watch. In addition to her solo records, she also took part in the lauded 2019 collaboration Songs of Our Native Daughters with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. A lot of artists, when they play solo, they play acoustic, because an electric guitar can bury their vocals. Kiah has no such problem; she has a powerful and gorgeous voice that was quite clear throughout her set, whether she was playing guitar or banjo.
Amythyst played a few originals, “Hangover Blues” and “Firewater,” along with the folk standard “Darlin’ Cory” and a cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. She shared that she’s been working on a new album with Sean McConnell, and she played one of the new songs, “Empire Love.” After closing the set with “Black Myself,” she received a standing ovation from the crowd, who were totally won over. I’ve also seen her open for Brandi Carlile, and, while the audience may not have been familiar with her, she’s won a lot of new fans with each show.
Watch the official music video for “Black Myself” by Amythyst Kiah on YouTube:
In 2006, Ritter was named on a list of the 100 best living songwriters, and he wryly noted he was glad not to be on “the list of dead songwriters.” Fortunately, nearly 20 years later, Josh is still on the list of living songwriters, putting out great music and playing excellent shows.
Here are some photos of Amythyst Kiah performing at the Lincoln Theatre on May 17, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.
And here are some photos of Josh Ritter performing at the Lincoln Theatre in DC on May 17, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.