When Idaho folk-rocker Josh Ritter officially introduced himself to Bruce Springsteen Nation last April, with an elegant rendition of “The River” at Carnegie Hall’s all-star Boss tribute, you could practically sense the collective eureka moment as the audience discovered a kindred spirit. Not only did the scruffy troubadour knock the song out of the park, but his impromptu prologue was a superlative homage to the simple but rare storytelling eloquence he shares with that evening’s honoree.
Last night, Ritter and his band kicked off their Small Town USA Tour in the House That Bruce Built: The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. It’s an appropriate launching pad for a performer looking to cut loose a bit. While he made his name playing small, rowdy pubs in Ireland, he’s seemed just as comfortable playing more highbrow venues, like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he played April 12 in a duet concert with classical violinist Hilary Hahn. The drab but hallowed Pony, as anyone who’s ventured through its fabled doors can attest, is relatively fiddle-intolerant, making it the perfect place to reclaim the groove only jamming in front of a neon sign can offer.
The Pony prides itself on its Spartan simplicity. “Backstage” is the band’s bus, parked obtrusively out front. The low ceiling’s steel pipes are a head-wound waiting to happen to any acrobatic guitarist, and the ceiling itself bows threateningly over the stage, making the odds that the band will metaphorically “blow the roof off” only slightly better than tragically crumbling beneath it.
With a refreshingly warm ocean breeze, the evening weather welcomedladies in tank tops and men in flannel shirts (which at the JerseyShore means it’s somewhere between 32 and 87 degrees). Flanneloutnumbered flesh, though, by at least 2-to-1, and the fellas, whospanned multiple generations, seemed united at least in their laziness,absentmindedness, or downright disdain for shaving cream.
Rock icon Lou Reed was playing simultaneously only a few Skee-Ball’stosses away at the nearby Paramount Theater, but the enthusiastic andgenerationally diverse crowd pushed forward when Ritter and his fourbandmates catapulted onto the stage to prove they knew how to rock.
The verdict? Yes, but. Dressed in a black blazer over a carelesslybuttoned, white collared shirt, the frizzy-haired singer launched into“Mind’s Eye” and quickly followed with “To the Dogs or Whoever,” twocharged songs from his latest studio effort, last summer’s gorgeous Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter.They raced through the first five songs, coming up for air only after2006’s “Good Man,” with its Springsteenian lyrical references to “hardtimes” and “badlands.” Dispensing with his folksy storytellinginterludes, Ritter seemed determined to establish his rock bonafides,even forgoing two of his most popular reflective ballads, “Thin BlueFlame” and “Girl in the War.” Only during the encore, when he dedicateda hushed rendition of “Monster Ballads” to the late E-Street Bandkeyboardist Danny Federici, did he seem willing to slow the pace.
The audience, many of whom know Ritter’s music primarily from hisalbums — he hadn’t performed in New Jersey in five years — seemed to beplaying catch-up at the start of the 91-minute show. But when helaunched into “Harrisburg,” a galloping lament about heaven, hell andtrains that would be right at home on Disc Two of Springsteen’s “TheRiver,” the crowd surged and never relented.
What is immediately apparent, though, is that Ritter’s searinglyintrospective and provocative political lyrics are cloaked in anunapologetically joyous live performance. He writes about heartbreak.He sings about loss. But onstage, he’s a grinning jester. He and hiscrew, especially mustachioed bassist Zack Hickman (a physicalhodgepodge of Buddy Holly and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot) havenone of the angst and rebelliousness that has shaped most other rockmusic. He’s Elliott Smith, but with a wink and a smile. All the otheroft-mentioned comparisons to a young Springsteen may only be skin deep,but his irrepressible ability to locate and share the salvation of rock‘n’ roll is pure Boss and might be his greatest gift of all. This is arock band you can bring home to mom — that is, if she hasn’t alreadynabbed them herself.