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The Josh Ritter Trio and David Wax Museum, Daniel Street, Milford CT – 6/17/11

June 20, 2011 1 comment

After last month’s Face to Face debacle in New Haven, southern Connecticut ‘s musical scene left a fairly poor taste in my mouth. Learning that Josh Ritter would be playing an exclusive “Josh Ritter Trio” gig a hole-in-the-wall in Milford (which is, in and of itself, a virtual hole-in-the-wall outside New Haven) with the likes of David Wax Museum would certainly do a lot to improve southern CT’s standing in my mind. Learning that said show would be an early show because the club was already booked out to local cover band Darik and the Funbags (you read that right) knocked it back down a few pegs, but I digress.

If you’ve never been, Daniel Street is a decent venue: small, roughly square shaped with the stage oddly placed in the back right hand corner. There is no dedicated artist entrance to the stage, and in fact the artist’s “green room” is at the front right hand corner of the venue, meaning that the artist needs to walk directly through the crowd in order to get to the stage. Interesting dynamic, to say the least.

The gig started with the aforementioned David Wax Museum. If you’re not familiar (as I admittedly wasn’t until about a week before the show), the band consists of David Wax on (primarily) jarocha (an eight-stringed traditional Mexican instrument) and Suz Slezak on fiddle and donkey jawbone. Yup, the jawbone of a donkey (it’s played like a percussion instrument, if you hadn’t guessed). The Massachusetts-based duo made the trek down for the show (and the following day’s Clearwater Festival in upstate New York) and were apparently in a rush in doing so, as Slezak forgot her fiddle at home, meaning the band’s stripped-down Mexican-inspired Americana folk sound was even more stripped down than usual. The result was a very intimate set that allowed the audience to focus on the vocal interplay between Wax and Slezak.

Slezak and Wax (Zachariah Hickman on the upright)

And concentrate they did…eventually. Typical of small bar crowds, there was a lot of talking going on early in their set. Midway through, this changed drastically. Wax and Slezak made their way, unamplified, to the center of the audience (accompanied by Mark Erelli of the Josh Ritter Trio on mandolin) for a very sparse version of “Let Me Rest” that allowed Slezak’s voice to really soar (and not just because she was standing on a chair).

Wax, Erelli and Slezak play "Let Me Rest" amidst the crowd

That’s a video that I didn’t take (as should be fairly obvious if A) you watch it and B) you know me. If only the former is true, yours truly is directly opposite this video’s taper, over David Wax’s right shoulder.

The David Wax Museum garnered lots of support from the crowd from then on, and their half-hour set was a perfect warmup for the Josh Ritter Trio show. Ritter, in his seemingly endless quest to keep himself challenged (interested) in playing his music has typically played gigs either backed by a full band or solo and acoustic. For this gig (and the aforementioned Clearwater Festival), his accompaniment was the Josh Ritter Trio, composed of Ritter himself on Gibson acoustic, his long-time left-hand man Zachariah “Obediah Book of Revelations” Hickman on upright bass and Mark Erelli (himself a noted folk musician from Reading, Massachusetts) on electric guitar/tenor guitar/lap steel/harmonica/mandolin.

The JR3 set started with a very stripped down version of “Rumours” from Ritter’s 2007 “Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” release. The album version of the track features the whole band, and the song’s lyrics focus on how big and impressive Ritter’s Royal City Band really are, so it was interesting to hear it very slowed down and without the standard instrumentation. For those that are interested, the full setlist will be posted below. If I were to give the show the adequate treatment it deserves, this review would clock in at a  solid two thousand words. And I would “stick to the highlights,” but honestly, there weren’t many (any?!?) low lights (aside from the fact that the front left part of the audience was dominated by individuals who dwarfed my 6’1″ frame).

Josh Ritter, in a rare 'eyes open' moment

Ritter’s set drew heavily from his two most recent albums (the above-mentioned “Historical Conquests” and 2010’s “So Runs The World Away“) with the requisite ‘Josh Ritter show staples’ included for obvious good measure. The nineteen-song set did include a few tidbits that were on the more rare side. The humorous, Holy Grail epic new-ish song “Galahad,” has quickly become a personal favorite of mine. A brand new (and seemingly untitled) song about having a new relationship after the recent demise of his marriage to fellow singer Dawn Landes was well crafted (though sounds similar to “Lark”), and reveals that post-breakup lyrical stylings of recent tour partner Scott Hutchison (of Frightened Rabbit) has rubbed off on him. Also, Ritter gave the other two-thirds of the Trio a rest and came to the front of the stage sans microphone for a beautiful rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” which I was not quite expecting yet managed to capture most of on video.

Ritter and the band decided to forgo the generally inevitable encore due to the tight time constraints (remember…there was a Darik and the Funbags show waiting in the wings) and plowed straight ahead, managing to get through a lot of ground. The Trio format gives new life and weight into older Ritter songs like “Golden Age of Radio” and “Me & Jiggs,” neither of which are particular favorites of mine (“I totally prefer the new stuff”) as they appear on the album, but both of which I found immensely enjoyable in this format. The group played with “full band energy,” which is no small task with lack of, well, a full band.

Here’s the whole setlist…

1. Rumors

2. Wolves

3. Southern Pacifica

4. The Curse

5. Rattling Locks

6. Long Shadows

7. Harrisburg

8. (new song – perhaps titled “New Lover”)

9. In The Dark

10. Girl In The War

11. The River (Springsteen)

12. Galahad

13. Monster Ballads

14. Right Moves

15. Golden Age of Radio

16. Kathleen

17. Change of Time

18. Everything in Ruins (Mark Erelli solo song)

19. Me & Jiggs

If you are interested in a free, fairly high-quality bootleg download of the gig, click here.

Here are some more pictures…

Zachariah "Obediah Book of Revelations" Hickman

Very rarely is Josh not smiling. More on this later.

Josh, getting his inner wolf on

Still "wolfing," this time in color

I don't think he was looking at me

The early time slot allowed ample time to mingle after the show. David and Suz from the David Wax Museum were hanging at the merch table after the gig, and were more than willing to talk all things music, particularly their unique instrumentation.  Both were very gracious and humble, and they are very deserving of whatever success comes their way (an opening gig for the Dave Matthews Band is lined up for this summer). Not long after, Josh Ritter himself made his way out of the gig and met with a couple dozen fans on the sidewalk right in front of Daniel Street. This made for several awkward conversations with passers-by, as the line to meet Josh was longer than the nonexistent line to get in for Darik & the Funbags’ set.

The impression that I had of Josh Ritter as a person prior to meeting him was that he was warm and gracious and humble and entertaining (based strictly on his stage persona). Now that I’ve met him, I can confirm that he does come across as all of those things in spades. One gets the sense that, however brief your conversation with him is, he is genuinely paying attention and interested and thinking about what you are saying. I had him sign the lyric page for “Thin Blue Flame” from his songbook, as I continue to think that it is one of the better songs ever written by anybody, and that you can listen to it one hundred times continuously and get one hundred different impressions of the song, hearing new things for the first time with each listen. He appeared genuinely touched by my thoughts on the song (though he still wouldn’t spill the beans as to what it was really about).

And of course, the obligatory fan photo. Again, note the smile (on him…and on Natalia…not on me…I look, well, I look like I’m missing my upper lip and like Natalia was my chaperone for the evening and that I should be wearing a soft, padded helmet).

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