Wednesday 30 October 2013: The pristine St George’s concert hall in Bristol hosts ‘An Acoustic Evening’ of fine American songwriting
his week around 500 Bristolians came in out of the rain and took their seats in the pews of St George’s church and were treated to an evening of acoustic Americana from two of its finest voices. Josh Ritter’s Acoustic Tour had already travelled to some of the further reaches of Europe before a storming night at Glasgow’s Fruit Market and a long train journey to the southwest, with Tift Merritt in tow as support.
St George’s is rightly famous for two things – its exquisite acoustics and its monster Steinway. Merritt, up first, used both in a forlorn southern chanteuse masterclass that had her audience rapt for the entire hour she was on stage. With a set list pulled from an extensive and – it has to be said – highly underrated back catalogue she flitted between her beaten-up acoustic and the very grand piano, playing just enough of each to frame her incredibly soulful voice.
She introduced us to her new album Traveling Alone, and warmed us up with tales of how much she loved St Nick’s market and why weren’t we friendlier with the French, before lulling us with a beautifully blues-y take on the Muscle Shoals Brass-athon Good Hearted Man and a completely acoustic, stood-in-the-middle-of-the-hall-away-from-any-microphones cover of Tom Waits’ Train Song. And by the time she’d introduced a heartbreaking version of Dark End Of The Street with a story of playing alongside her father at the family piano and would we mind if she rehearsed it here for when he comes to see her for the first time in Europe, Ms Merritt had the entire crowd in the palm of her hand, hoping we’d hear her again later.
Josh Ritter ambled onto the stage flanked by his two suitably hirsute sidemen, multi-instrumentalists Josh Kaufman and Zack Hickman, and presented an equally mesmerising set of rearranged classics and new songs from his most recent album, The Beast In Its Tracks. With a marriage and tricky house sale recently behind him, Ritter cut loose in these intimate surroundings and treated us to what the New York Times has in the past described as “a world of ideas on a few basic chords”.
While Ritter’s songs are undeniably rooted in Americana, these new arrangements were played with a spiky, raw, almost steampunk-like edginess by the three musicians on stage. Kaufman and Hickman continually swapped semi-acoustic, volume-swelling slide guitars for electric harmonium, mandolin, four-string banjo and gigantic upright double bass around Ritter’s simple guitar chord melodies and claw-hammer picking, but it was the words and the world-weary way in which they were sung that drove deep into the audience’s hearts here. Ritter’s voice has always been best described as ‘smoky’, but in the surroundings of St George’s it took on another much more fragile dimension best demonstrated when he asked for the lights to be turned off completely, and sang The Curse accompanied only by his fabulous Gretsch guitar to devastating effect. At other times he sang completely acoustically and even sang on his knees, using the church’s natural reverb to emphasise parts of Wolves before bringing the song together again in perfect three part harmony.
Here is a singer-songwriter at the very top of his game. Somehow able to find redemption and happiness in a set of songs about a particularly sad and unpleasant divorce, Ritter and his cohorts smiled and laughed their way through their set; and it was infectious. By the time they’d romped through Kathleen and Galahad the crowd were on their feet whooping and hollering for more. Out they came, this time with Merritt joining them for a beautifully subdued version of Willie Nelson’s Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight and the quiet, reflective Wait For Love before bidding us good night.
The great hurricane of 2013 may have just missed Bristol, but Josh Ritter’s Acoustic Evening had stirred a quiet storm in the big old church off Park Street and left those that were lucky enough to hear it filled with joy.
Words: Charlie Widdows