Home Live Review Live Review: Josh Ritter @ 9:30 Club — 2/12/24

Live Review: Josh Ritter @ 9:30 Club — 2/12/24

Live Review: Josh Ritter @ 9:30 Club — 2/12/24
Josh Ritter (Photo by Sam Kassirer)

The act of creation is strange and mysterious. When one writes a song or a story, it may contain depths and meanings hidden even from its author. Revisiting his seminal album Hello Starling on its 20th anniversary, Josh Ritter has found things in his songs he never knew were there.

“When I first started writing songs,” Ritter recently told an audience at the 9:30 Club, “I was 16 or 17.” Back then, he added, “Every chord was mystical.” A native of small-town northern Idaho, Ritter attended Oberlin College, my alma mater, a liberal arts college with a hitory of producing popular muscians: Liz Phair, Jason Molina, Rhiannon Giddens, and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are just a few.

Released in 2003, Hello Starling was Ritter’s third album. To record the album, he decamped to France, where he worked at Black Box Studios, using equipment that had once belonged to Curtis Mayfield. The result was a record that launched Ritter into a new tier of success and is still beloved by his fans, who sang along for much of Monday night’s show.

While Josh and his Royal City Band played the entirety of Hello Starling, the setĀ  — the second of two nights at 9:30 Club on Feb. 12 — began with some other songs from his extensive catalog: “New Lover,” “Feels Like Lightning,” “Where the Night Goes,” and “Henrietta, Indiana.” After “When Will I Be Changed,” Ritter said, “Monday night is the worst night for nostalgia. Biologically. Studies have been done.”

The concert moved into the Hello Starling material, which Ritter introduced by talking about playing songs he hadn’t played in a long time. “I’m just grateful to be here 20 years later,” he said. With that, Josh and his band launched into the album’s opening track, “Bright Smile.” Next up was “Kathleen,” and, when the audience heard the opening chords, they cheered for the song, which tells the story of a shy young man who waits all night for the chance to drive the object of his affection home. Josh seems like a shy guy, a little bit geeky, and I can definitely relate to that.

Watch the official music video for “Bright Smile” by Josh Ritter on YouTube:

“You Don’t Make It Easy, Babe,” Josh explained, was written in the basement of a house in Dublin, where he was surrounded by thousands of CD cases. “When we put it on the record,” he said of “Man Burning,” “I couldn’t play it,” but he’s since improved his technique and did a fine job with the song. “Homecoming,” he told the audience, is “a song about Idaho. When I was just starting playing music, I was temp working in Providence, RhodeĀ Island.” He rattled off a series of odd jobs, including x-ray tech, which he said he was a poor fit for, and finished by saying that he “missed home a lot.”

Next up was “Wings,” followed by “California,” then “Snow Is Gone,” which contains the lyric from which the album’s title is taken. After “Snow Is Gone,” the band left the stage and Josh played “Bone of Song,” a celebration of creation that has been compared to the work of Leonard Cohen, solo acoustic. The band returned, and they finished up the songs from Hello Starling with “But That’s Not All” and “Bad Actress.”

Before playing the last few songs of the evening, Ritter took a moment to address the audience, saying, “I need to be more honest about what I’m saying and just say it.” One unique thing Josh does at his shows is he asks fans to submit dedications, and he took a few minutes to read some of them to the audience. It was a nice way to establish a bond between performer and audience. Before playing “Empty Hearts,” he also said, “The coolest place to hang out [in the DC area] is the parking lot of Fashion Centre in Pentagon City.”

The main set finished up with “Empty Hearts,” “For Your Soul,” and “Getting Ready to Get Down.” The band left the stage, and Josh returned for an encore with just his piano player, sending the crowd home with “The Curse.”

This was a great show. Hello Starling might be my favorite Josh Ritter album, and it was clearly beloved by the crowd, who were totally into the music. Many knew the words to most of the songs by heart. Josh clearly has a devoted, passionate fanbase.


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