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“It’s a big sky right now and I’m really happy”: Josh Ritter talks about the road since The Beast In Its Tracks

Josh Ritter | Photo via facebook.com/joshrittermusic
Josh Ritter | Photo via facebook.com/joshrittermusic

Just about a year ago, Josh Ritter released a moving collection of songs called The Beast in its Tracks. It was notably the first time that this favorite of the singer-songwriter scene wrote from a true first-person perspective, collecting a range of thoughts and emotions in the wake of his 2011 divorce and channeling them into songs that were remarkably stirring, beautiful and – on standout track “Joy to You Baby” – even optimistic. The album went on to receive widespread critical acclaim, and Ritter toured in support of it both with his five-piece Royal City Band and by himself.

On Thursday night, he splits the difference, playing at The Keswick Theatre in Glenside acoustically, accompanied by musical collaborators Zack Hickman and Josh Kaufman. It won’t be a full-on rock set, allowing Ritter to touch on the more nuanced moments of his catalog, but he won’t be by himself either, allowing the set to be built around a dynamic rise-and-fall. “It’s something I’ve been jonesing for,” he told me when I caught up with him via phone enroute to a show in Louisville earlier this week. We talked about the differences between playing with a band and playing solo, the unexpected success of Beast and what to do when your opening act gives you an axe.

The Key: Does the opportunity to do solo or more intimate shows like this become more of a rare thing for you the longer you’re a performing musician?

Josh Ritter: I would hope not! I started playing solo, for many years. When I write, I write solo. And there’s so much about that part of it that I find to be the foundational aspect of my songs. I really believe that songs, to be lasting, should be able to played by anybody. It shouldn’t require virtuosic talent and instrumentation – and that’s good for me because I’m no virtuoso when it comes to playing guitar! [laughs] And then I also believe that a song should only need to be delivered by a single voice. I really like the idea of a strand of melody going around in my head and the words kind of dovetailing that. I live for those moments, and I believe in a show those can be really important. You don’t need to have anything else to reach an audience then just voice and guitar or voice and some instrument. You can always add on [in the studio], and that’s great. But it’s best to remind yourself every so often that you can do it on your own.


“There’s a real tangible flow of energy between the performer and the audience.” Josh Ritter on stage at The Fillmore in San Francisco | Photo by Brian Stowell | Photo via facebook.com/joshrittermusic

TK: Yeah, and chasing that a little bit further, can you compare and contrast playing with your full band to playing a more scaled-down version of it like you’re doing on this tour, or even straight up playing solo? What do you like about playing with the guys ,what do you like about playing alone?

JR: Well it all basically comes down to – without sounding too much like a hippie – is there’s a real tangible flow of energy between the performer and the audience. I think when you’re performing, that is a strand or a power that you don’t want to sever or dilute any. When you’re playing on your own it’s just you and the audience and that’s a really incredible thing. With a band, that gets trickier. You’re sharing your energy with the band the band is focusing its energy through you and it can be an ecstatic experience, but it can also be something you can all too easily fold yourself into and get lost in the energy of the band and pay less attention to what’s going on between you and the audience. Continue reading →

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Tonight’s Concert Picks: Kopecky Family Band at TLA, Jose James at World Cafe Live, Luscious Jackson at Union Transfer, and more

Kopecky Family Band | via Facebook

The Nashville natives of Kopecky Family Band will be headlining the TLA tonight, just one stop on a tour that is taking them around North America for the remainder of the year. Their full indie sound is created with the use of keyboards, horns, and cello in addition to the basic band set up. Their somewhat recent releaseKids Raising Kids, opens with the spunky lyrics “Oh! my wandering eyes / nothing’s gonna take me by surprise!” that are delivered in harmony over bluesy riffs and slowly marching drums. Sure to be an upbeat performance, get out to see Kopecky Family band, especially since they’ll be supported by California-bound locals Cheers Elephant. Find tickets to the show here, and pick up their album here.

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Interview: Talking about The Kinks and cover songs with The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy (playing The Keswick Theater on Saturday)

1331He’s a songwriter in his own right, but Colin Meloy of Portland indie troupe The Decemberists is also an appreciator of music, the pop hits and the deep cuts. In 2005, his Colin Meloy Sings… EP project made its debut to coincide with a solo tour. Over time, the series has tackled the music of Morrissey and Sam Cooke, as well as lesser-known names like English folk revivalist Shirley Collins, via limited-run tour-only EPs.

Since their wildly popular 2011 album The King is Dead, The Decemberists have been relatively quiet, allowing some of its members to play with the rustic ensemble Black Prairie, while Meloy launched a series of children’s books with his wife Carson Ellis. But this fall he is out on the road again, hitting up Glenside’s Keswick Theater on November 2nd, and this time he brings an EP covering the music of The Kinks; you can hear his rendition of “Do You Remember Walter?” at NPR Music.

On Tuesday I caught up with Meloy on the Phone from his Portland home; you can read our conversation below to dig into the origins of the Sings project, the function of cover songs in general, the greatest era of Ray and Dave Davies, and what might become of the new songs he’s testing out on tour.

The Key: You’ve been doing these Colin Meloy Sings EPs for about eight years now. What were the project’s origins?

Colin Meloy: The first solo tour I did was in 2005. It seemed like kind of a novel project, as far as just having something on the road to make it an event, and maybe induce people to come out to the shows. I think I mostly just thought as excuse to take on a weird project. And I think just Morrissey had drawn me because he is one of the few artists that I know pretty much his body of work, inside and out. I don’t think there is a single song that I don’t know pretty intimately. I mean, since 2005 I guess I haven’t really kept up with the post-You Are The Quarry output, but certainly prior to that. And it was fun to kind go through and dig through B-sides and kind of re-record these songs as my kind of interpretation of them. So that sort of set a precedent and so for the next solo tour I figured I should just keep doing it, and doing it in the same fashion. And that leads us to today with The Kinks.

TK: Were the other artists in the series ones that you knew their body of work just as intimately?
CM: No. With Shirley Collins, I kind of had given myself a crash course over the course of a year or two. So that came at a time when I felt like I was being kind of like a scholar of the British folk revival, and she was one of my intros into that. And it was also an opportunity to kind of maybe expose people to Shirley Collins; people who maybe haven’t necessarily known about her. And then with Sam Cooke, I just had a love for those songs. They’re the sort of songs that are just in your bones, everybody just knows them. I tend to think of them as pop songs and they do have a nice intimacy that I thought would translate nicely to really simple, spare renditions. So that’s really where the Sam Cooke one went. And The Kinks was trickier. I feel like I was really stumped this time around. I have their records and I know their work really well, but I never actually dug in that deep. Aside from playing “You Really Got Me” with a high school band, I had never actually learned a Kinks song really. So it was an opportunity to do that.

TK: I’m a little intimidated by how many albums they have. And I know a lot of people, a lot of people I know are in the same boat. With you, what do you think it really was that kept you from diving in till now?

CM: It’s the depth of the work and it just runs the gamut. I mean there’s just tons of kind of tossed-off stuff, as well as, songs that you know, but never maybe spent the time to really sorta focus in. They’re baroquely arranged, which can sometimes distract from the lyrics. For example, it was sort of a revelation to me that “Waterloo Sunset” – which I think everybody knows as being this love letter to London, so much so that it was even performed at the opening ceremony of the Olympics – that if you dig, if you get under the hood and actually learn the song it’s kind of a really sad song about an agoraphobe and kind of a misanthrope. I think that strain, that attitude goes through a lot of his music. So where it seems like this really romantic tune about the beauty of the London skyline, it’s actually about a guy who just doesn’t leave his house; which is kind of amazing. Continue reading →

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Tonight’s Concert Picks: The Flaming Lips at Festival Pier, Blondie / X at Keswick Theater, Wesley Stace at World Cafe Live and more

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Hailed for their dense psychedelic compositions and exuberant nature, experimental alt-rock legends The Flaming Lips play alongside Tame Impala tonight at Festival Pier. Although the Oklahoma native, five piece outfit toned down their never-leave-a-dull-moment-untouched attitude with April release The Terror, front man Wayne Coyne tells Rolling Stone that the album is ”possibly the best Flaming Lips record ever made.” However bleak the release may be, it has not stifled the internationally acclaimed band’s over the top personality; which can be seen in their recent “Turning Violent” and Devo cover “Gates of Steel” videos seen below. Find details and tickets for tonight’s show at the XPN concert calendar.

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Tonight’s Concert Picks: Screaming Females at First Unitarian Church. Immortal Technique at the TLA, Jimmy Cliff at the Keswick Theater

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New Brunswick’s Screaming Females come to the First Unitarian Church tonight for a label showcase with Waxahatchee and Tenement.  The indie punk trio, fronted by powerhouse vocalist / guitarist Marissa Paternoster and formed in the sweaty basements of North Jersey’s buried punk scene, released its fifth studio record last year on Don Giovanni, receiving critical acclaim from Pitchfork, Stereogum and A.V. Club.  In the spirit of label collaboration, Screaming Females and Tenement just released a split 7″ that will be available during the fall tour.  Tickets and information can be found here.  Watch Screaming Females’ Tiny Desk Concert on NPR below.

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Hot Tuna’s all-acoustic set at The Keswick strikes an intimate chord (photos, review)

All photos by Noah Silvestry | silvestography.tumblr.com

A long-running offshoot of 60s psychedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna made a stop at the historic Keswick Theatre in Glenside Friday night. The blues-rock group put on an all-acoustic show featuring former Jefferson Airplane members Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen joined by multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff. Despite the group’s devoted following, similar to that of The Grateful Dead, the auditorium was far from full, leading to a pleasantly intimate experience, fortunately enough. Fans enjoyed a diverse setlist, including classics such as “I See the Light”, “Hesitation Blues” and “Good Shepherd” mixed in with songs from their most recent album, Steady as She Goes, like “Second Chances”, “Children of Zion” and “Goodbye to the Blues”. In fact, the very much laid back trio ditched the setlist not halfway through their set. While not the most talkative of musicians, banter was present, Kaukonen recounting his struggles to get Casady to say the word “barbeque” as a part of his effort to creatively introduce their song, “Barbeque King.”

Joining Hot Tuna as an opening act was Jill Sobule, whose forthright lyrical style had the audience engaged from the start, asking the crowd’s preference between a song about the apocalypse and a tune about her “sexy love for trains”.

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Tonight’s Concert Picks: Little Big League at Union Transfer, Marc Silver at Johnny Brenda’s, Hot Tuna at Keswick Theater, The Gallerist at The Fire

Little Big League

Philly indie rock outfit Little Big League will be opening for Titus Andronicus at Union Transfer, warming up for the release of their first LP, These Are Good People (out July 11th on Tiny Engines Records). Fun fact: Drummer Ian Dykstra used to play for Titus Andronicus a few years back! Find tickets and more information here, and check out their new song “Lindsey” below.

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Rodriguez’s “Sugar Man” tour continues, comes to Keswick on 4/9

After selling out World Cafe Live downstairs last fall on the heels of the buzz-making Searching for Sugar Man documentary, psychedelic folk cult favorite Rodriguez swings back through the area again this spring, coming to Glenside’s Keswick Theater on April 9th. Tickets for the show go on sale this Friday, February 1st, at noon. Below, watch Rodriguez covering Lou Rawls’ “Dead End Street” at World Cafe Live back in October.

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Tonight’s Concert Picks: Low Cut Connie at Johnny Brenda’s, Field Report at World Cafe Live, Cold Specks at First Unitarian

Low Cut Connie will be performing tonight at Johnny Brenda’s promoting the September release of their sophomore album, Call Me Sylvia. The band’s rollicking party music is carried by poppy melodies and sharp lyrics that make any bar scene the best party in town. The 21+ show starts at 9:30; more information can be found on our concert calendar here. Check out the band’s new video for “Boozophilia” below.

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Ben Gibbard loosens up at The Keswick Theater (review, setlist)

Photo by John Vettese

“I was worried about playing this show,” Ben Gibbard told the crowd at Glenside’s Keswick Theater last night. “I mean, not worried about being here, but more what kind of vibe today would have. But I’m very happy right now.”

Maybe it was because he was on post-Election Day cloud nine, or maybe it’s just the format of the tour, but this solo appearance had a loose mood and lively personality that we rarely get to see from the Death Cab for Cutie frontman.

For all its epic songs and their transcendent peaks and valleys, the Seattle band – historically speaking – is kind of a drag in concert. Over the years, they’ve repeatedly come off as too locked-in, too stiff, evidently unmoved and maybe even kinda bored by their own spectacular music. When Gibbard did banter with the crowd at those full-band shows, there was an air of detachment.

At the Keswick, we saw the complete opposite. Continue reading →