Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band w/Nicki Bluhm
Neptune Theatre, Seattle, WA

Two decades and nine albums into his career, Josh Ritter has certainly traveled a long and winding road. Known for his stripped-down soul, acoustic stylings, hopeless romanticism, and biting melancholy, he is back with his 2017 release, Gatherings, and that is exactly what it was at the Neptune.  

Opening the night was singer/songwriter Nicki Bluhm. Walking non-nonchalantly to the microphone in a flowing, sparkly gown, she did not touch her guitar for the first four minutes of her set. Instead, she let her voice soar with a folk singer’s heart; it was an awesome way to bring the crowd in. Bluhm’s set was simple, a guitar, her voice, and earnest songwriting, and it was a fine choice to open the night for another earnest songwriter.

Writing songs in a window sill with a cup of tea in one hand and a pencil in another, at first glance, Ritter seems like the sensitive, introspective songwriter.  He is known for his acoustically driven songs about life, love, and everything in between. You can understand my surprise, then, when he came out with his band with a huge smile on his face, screaming away from the microphone, just a bright ball of energy before opening with the driving, country tune “Feels Like Lightning.”

Smiling for days and jumping around the stage, Ritter electrified the capacity crowd with a smattering of up-tempo tunes like  “Young Moses” and “Henrietta,” before bringing it down with “Train Go By” and the haunting “Dreams.”

At this point in the night, the band retired for a few songs, allowing Ritter to do what he does best, a coffeehouse set. The highlight of this solo acoustic portion was “The Temptation of Adam,” a downright lovely tune that featured his simple fingerpicking style.

Ritter is a storyteller as much as he is a songwriter. In this case, he painted a picture of a love story that took place in a missile silo at the end of the world.  Heartstrings were pulled.

The Royal City Band that supported Ritter was a formidable group wielding instruments from the recorder to accordion. When they gathered around Ritter and his vintage microphone, it was a picture of camaraderie and happiness. During fan favorite, “Kathleen,” it wouldn’t matter if there were 5 or 500 people in the theater, they were lost in the company of each other, like a group of friends jamming on a porch.

After the rousing energy of “Homecoming,” Ritter came out for a three-song encore that ended, fittingly, just him on a stool with his guitar, singing another wonderful tale in “Girl in the War.”

The boyish energy and tempered troubadour is the yin and yang of Josh Ritter.  Twenty years from the start of his career, you can see that he is as serious about his craft as ever, but he doesn’t take it too seriously.

Review and photos by Phillip Johnson

Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band

Nicki Bluhm