September 9, 2010

New Josh Ritter & Dawn Landes: “500 Miles”

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As if Josh Ritter and his folk-singer wife Dawn Landes weren’t already cute enough together, now we get to hear their voices together on a free new download. And it is sublime. They sure as heck better have some golden-voiced offspring.

STREAM: 500 Miles (Hedy West cover) [download here]

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Josh sets out on a European tour (more than 500 miles) today, before looping back around through these domestic lands in late autumn. You may recall how much I loved the Telluride shows, so you know I will be there for the Denver stop on 11/11.

All tour dates here: GO.

[photo credit Brian Stowell]

July 10, 2010

Talking to Josh Ritter in Telluride


I’ve written several times that I believe Idahoan Josh Ritter is one of the most important and talented songwriters of our generation, making music that is weighty and beautiful, that will stand up to time. Each of his six albums over the last 11 years has trod different musical ground, from folksy acousticism to uptempo soulful rock, and all shades in between. Yet all of this is ballasted by his insightful, dazzling lyrics – drawing lessons from mythology, psychology, religious narratives, archaeology, and historical figures, but never inaccessibly so.

I am an unabashed lover of words. I’ve been known to fall for folks strictly on the basis of their vocabulary. For me, the way Josh can excise things deep within me using only a handful of words is truly rare. Here is a guy who gets it, who pursues stories and emotions relentlessly to evoke them powerfully in his music. He gets my highest respect – I mean, even how created his own major at Oberlin College in “American History Through Narrative Folk Music”; I’m incredibly jealous that I didn’t think of that. Plus, he just rocks, and is one of the most ebullient live performers you will ever see.

I walked into this interview with so much apprehension, not because I thought he’d be anything but marvelous (I’d been warned how generous his hugs were, and he didn’t disappoint) but because I am so deeply impressed with what he does. My usual types of interview questions seemed to fall so short it wasn’t even funny. So under some big trees in Telluride on a Thursday evening, we just talked instead. And it was warm and wonderful. It went like this:


Fuel/Friends:I have a whole jumbled bunch of questions that I would love to ask you, but hmmmm . . . I think I want to start with something that references your new album, something I’ve rolled over a lot in my head these past months. In “The Curse” . . . do you think it was worth it for her?

Josh Ritter: Ooh, wow. That’s a really good question. I don’t know. Well, let me think . . .

I think that love is like a trap sometimes. You get deep in and you think, “This is the wrong place to be,” and by that time, it’s all built around you. I’m not sure, but I typically tend to stay away from an idea like [says grandly] “But it was all worth it.” I mean, if it wasn’t right in the end, then it wasn’t worth it. My experience with love has been this: if it’s good, then it ends good or it continues good. But if it’s not good then it’s just . . . not good. I mean what is the difference between a tragedy and any other sort of genre? The tragedy ends badly. I think of that song as a tragedy, but the interesting part to me is that he knows the whole time that he’s doing this to her.

F/F: So he knew? I always couldn’t tell if he knew, or if he just somehow hoped that it would be different this time, that his curse wouldn’t be destructive.

JR: Yeah, I do like the idea that it could be interpreted a number of different ways. But I like seeing him as calculating, like he built this thing around himself (“Think of them as an immense invitation”) so that this one day this would happen. As much as there may have been periods when he was truly in love, he was ultimately using her.

F/F: See, I was thinking about how it might not have been a bad exchange for her — I think of the lyrics about how they talk of the Nile and girls in bulrushes, and I mean, through that relationship, she got to be as close as she would EVER be to that world of Egypt that she had dedicated her whole studies to.

JR: I never thought about it quite like that. That’s really cool.

F/F: And the video is amazing. I never expected puppets to make me cry, the way his eyes twinkle.

JR: I know, I know! I feel exactly the same way! Liam (our drummer, who made the video) is a ninja.

F/F: Do you think that you are telling old stories with a new voice? Or new stories?

JR: Oh, old stories, definitely. There is nothing new. Whether it’s Cormac McCarthy, or Mark Twain, or whoever, they are never telling a story that’s completely brand new. There’s always an archetype. It reminds me of that quote about: “See what everybody else has seen, think what nobody else has thought.” (Albert Szent-Gyoergi). Songs are just reimagining old stories, old feelings. It’s like in science how an electron microscope helped us to see things that had always been all around us since time immemorial, but now we saw it in a whole new way.

F/F: There was a time you considered a career in science. Is music at all like science?

JR: I think science is like art, yeah absolutely. There’s a tendency to put your own discipline on a pedestal, and hold it above all others, but there are so many similarities. There’s an idea that scientists wear these white robes on a mountainside and write down these massive truths, but science fills a societal need of figuring out answers to questions we have, just the same as art does. For example, my parents are studying appetite and how it affect diabetes and obesity, and that’s important research, but really it is filling a need – the same thing that happens in art. You see a need out there that interests you and you follow it, and there’s gotta be a reason why you are interested in it. They speak to different needs in different ways. Science and art and religion are all very similar – all trying to fill in the gaps.

F/F: You mention religion, and many of your songs almost strike me as parables, or at least allegorical fables.

JR: A parable is like a multi-faceted metaphor. To go back to what we were talking about with “The Curse,” you can see it a lot of different ways – and that’s what makes it so interesting. Elaine Pagels is an amazing writer about religion, and she talks a lot about the Gnostic Gospels, and this idea that a few parables of Jesus had been written down before he died, and then after Jesus was dead all these people came along who knew these parables, but they meant something different to everyone, whether it was Peter and Paul, or Mary Magdalene, or Mary, or James, all these people that claimed to have a secret knowledge about what that parable meant – Thomas, the gospel of Thomas is the best example of that, and the secret teachings. Even when we talk about something like the Sermon on the Mount, there are things that seem perfectly clear, and also completely mystifying the next moment. Like Leonard Cohen says, “from the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount / which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”

But maybe it’s really holding a mirror up to yourself, and how you interpret something tells you a lot about yourself. If you think A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor is funny, are you being honest with yourself, or are you just a mean person?

F/F: Well, I think my last question is…..

JR: (interrupts, leaning forward) – I got a question for you. What’s your favorite song in the world, that you’ve ever heard? If you had to choose.

(I am stunned with the vastness of this question, and Josh asking it to me. I feel like I haven’t studied for a really cool test. I cannot pick.)

JR: I think mine would maybe be “I Dream A Highway” by Gillian Welch.

F/F: Oooh! Such an excellent, excellent choice. That song has everything you could ever want. Hmm, that kind of reminds me of a song I love that I was listening to on the way here, I don’t think it is my favorite song ever, by any means, but one that speaks volumes to me – “Mary” by Patty Griffin.

JR: Oh, yeah! Yessss, that song is a SICK song. “….Stays behind and starts cleaning up the place,” (we both say in unison). It shows so many facets of her . . . and it makes you mad that she’s just being used every which way.

F/F: Agreed. So I want to talk a little about the sticky intersection between art and commerce – do you think they are mutually incompatible?

JR: I certainly hope music is a commercial venture. I have no bones about the fact that I feel I deserve to make a living off my music. I mean, what else would I do? People who choose to follow art are often ill-suited to be anything else. The best writers or directors or comedians, you cannot imagine them doing anything else. I’m curious if I could do something else – I mean I wrote a book, but I guess we’ll see if I can do that well. What I do helps me survive; I definitely wouldn’t want to do anything else. Whatever there is about God or whatever, I think it helps to believe you were put somewhere for something. And if someone decides their profession will be one of an artist, that’s a noble choice. In the end you are selling something that you think is important, because you are spending your time doing it. And also, I think people can tell when you don’t think it’s that important, and there’s tons of artists that are doing that as well.

Commerce and art are only good when you have a level of trust with the people that are buying your music. What they are actually buying is a chance for you to spend more time doing what you do – playing shows, putting out albums. That is your responsibility to account for yourself, for the money they have given you. That that’s gotten a lot harder, I think, is not necessarily a bad thing. The last 50,000 years of human history have been about artists working hard for very little, and only about 50-60 years now where that hasn’t been the case. So it is a kind of historical aberration right now. But I definitely think that the amount of stuff that musicians and other artists go through, and the relatively small returns, you know, we all deserve the same kind of normal life that everybody else has. Like I would like to have kids and be able to support them. So to those ends, there’s probably not much I wouldn’t do to be able to keep up playing music and be able to support my family.

Certain decisions would need to be made on a situational basis, like commercials. I did a commercial for Crayola with my song “Great Big Mind,” which I was really happy with. But I’m not The Black Eyed Peas, I’m not gonna go out and do, like, the Camel Cigarette Tour or anything like that. It’s also sort of a thing that sticks with me a little bit because I feel like people in the last generation have always looked askance at making money from commercials, you know? There are people like Tom Waits, who I love in every way, except that I don’t agree with him (in his staunch opposition to commercials). He came up in a different time where people sold records, and made money selling records, and that’s not a thing that happens anymore so we have to look in other places.

F/F: Do you ever feel the struggle in the balance between writing something that will sell and something that is artistically true to you? Is there a conflict selling something that comes from the deepest parts of you?

JR: There’s that point when somebody is running for office, when they are attracting the people who will vote for them based on who they are, and I feel it switches at some point (I believe Hemingway calls that the “pilot fish” – the one swimming ahead of the pack and leading all the other fish to that place). At some point it flips and then the leader becomes the follower of the other fish in his pack, the other fish that supported him to get him to where he is now. You stop becoming a leader and you start becoming a follower, you become part of the mob.

You cannot allow yourself to become that. If you try to shape your music to fill a certain hole, it’s not gonna work that way, it just ends up sounding bland. You have to do your own thing because that’s all that anybody really wants. It’s harder, but at least you don’t feel like you’re a faker. The worst thing I can think of would be writing songs desperately, trying to get a hit.

F/F: It reminds me of the article I read once about Weezer trying to mathematically analyze their hit songs, what made them hits.

JR: Everything I’ve ever seen with music leads me to think that there is no way to know what people are going to like. I think I know, but I don’t have any idea of what happens once it leaves me.

All you can do is do what you do, and hope that the side effect of making music that you yourself love is that other people are going to love it too. And when I die, I’ll leave something behind that I was actually proud of.




[photos by the luminous Sarah Law. His hands in the top picture remind me of this. Thanks, Sarah.]

June 25, 2010

Telluride Bluegrass 2010 (or: two of my favorite shows in two days)

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The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is a behemoth of goodness and gorgeousness. Nestled in the crevasse of huge mountains, surrounded by forests and rivers (I kept thinking of the Josh Ritter lyric, “The lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand” all weekend), it definitely wins for musical escapism. I spent last weekend at the 37th annual festival that brings a loosely-defined group of bluegrass musicians together in the mountains of Colorado, far from where the direct roads and highways go. Six or seven hours from the most populated areas of the state, it seemed like a wonderland when we arrived.

I felt like a bit of an interloper, coming to the festival for the less-traditional indie artists with crossover appeal. I was absolutely there for the opportunity to see Josh Ritter and Mumford & Sons, each playing Nightgrass shows in teensy 250-person venues. It was an added bonus for me to see artists like Ben Sollee, Dave Rawlings & Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, and the Court Yard Hounds (2/3 of the Dixie Chicks, who I forgot how damn much I used to like). I’ll admit I was unfamiliar with many of the other musicians, being fairly unsteeped in the bluegrass tradition, but interested to hear whatever I could absorb.

On Thursday, I woke at 5am-something in my comfortable bed, threw my tent and sleeping bag into the trunk, and set off into the mountains. The drive that is quickly becoming one of my favorites in Colorado (tracing the Arkansas River) passed quickly, and I got to the festival minutes before Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band were scheduled to start. I walked down into the breathtaking mainstage area as his opening strums of “Southern Pacifica” were just beginning. Electrified, I hustled to plant myself right in the front of waves of his songs carrying out towards the mountains on all sides. Looking out between songs, Josh mused, “This is as good as it gets.”

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He interspersed songs from his new album (like “Lantern” and “Folk Bloodbath”) along with some of my favorites like “Girl In The War” –I cried at these lines– “Monster Ballads” and “Kathleen.” It was also wonderful to hear a few real old ones like “Harrisburg” and “Me and Jiggs” (we are all half-crazy, and all at least half alright, indeed). I haven’t seen him live since summer ’08, and I can report that his ebullient enthusiasm is still 100% intact. The crowd cheered with as much strength as you can squeeze out of folks at 3pm on a gorgeously sunny Thursday, many hearing him for the first time. Josh looked out at the colorful crowd and laughed: “I had a lot of things to say but . . . I’m speechless.”


After his set, I went to set up camp and I had gotten a parking ticket and didn’t even care. That’s what Josh Ritter does to me; careless disregard for parking laws and other mundane things of this society.

I missed the Dave Rawlings Machine set while I attended to the necessary work of tent-constructing, but I heard the glorious strains of “Look At Miss Ohio” weaving their way to the campsite as I pounded stakes. As the afternoon turned to evening, I walked over to the Fly Me To The Moon Saloon to interview Josh Ritter. You’ll hear more about this soon, but it was as marvelous as I had hoped. What a gem of a human being, as well as a songwriter and performer.

After our interview and hugs concluded, I caught just a few songs of the heavenly-voiced Alison Krauss’ set back at the main stage (she really does sound that pure and untarnished in real life, and it is amazing). My favorite part of the set was probably “Down To The River To Pray” with Union Station — the bookend to hearing another song from the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in California last summer. There’s something about bluegrass music that just sounds so right amongst the trees on a late summer afternoon.

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Then it was back for my second Josh Ritter show of the same day. I thought that the night concert was even better than the daytime one for me, because a) I like the nightlife and b) it was shoulder to shoulder in a small venue, the energy concentrated in every song. This one was more fiery, more urgent, more sweaty as we danced together in the tiny basement club. Moments that I remember especially clearly:

-getting to hear both “Wolves” and “Snow Is Gone” in the same set, songs that have meant a lot to me in the past year and just rupture beautifully live.

-a completely heartbreaking-in-every-way cover of Springsteen’s “The River” — the room felt so heavy and overwhelmed when he sang those lines, “now I act like I don’t remember, and Mary acts like she don’t care…”

-turning out every light in the house and singing an acoustic version of “In The Dark,” one that we all sang along to in near-reverence, and I cried like a girl with a skinned knee. Or maybe skinned heart.

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Ed Helms from The Office is a huge bluegrass fan, and an Oberlin alum like Josh, so he came up on stage to play banjo during “Next To The Last Romantic” (the kid next to me said to his friend, “WHOA. He looks just like Andy Bernard from The Office!”). Rocking:

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Finally, for the closing encore song, the whole band came out and stood arm-in-arm, next to Josh on acoustic guitar, and we all joined in to sing “Wait For Love (You Know You Will).” It’s the last song on 2007′s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, and those closing minutes just overflowed with warm feelings — a mutual encouragement to us all. I was amazed for some reason at how everyone there seemed to know all the words, even on the verses. He certainly has created a legion of dedicated fans.

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The band left the stage and the crowd started to gather their things, but Josh closed with this, all by himself, hands clasped behind his back. It felt like a benediction.

Friday started quite pleasantly, hearing the strains of Kentucky cellist Ben Sollee from the main stage as I toweled off from my camp shower ($3 in quarters for five minutes of hot water, a very decent trade). With my hair still wet, I meandered over to see him open the day with his plaintive, elegant, curious, articulate music.

Ben had opened for Josh Ritter the night before, but I was so overwhelmed and out of it from the interview that I was glad for the chance to see him again clear-headed. This extremely talented guy does wondrous things with a cello, an instrument I love. The resonance of a cello is swollen with sadness to my ears, like a lugubrious river, but Ben’s voice of clever levity cuts through it like a sharp speckled rock, parting the current.

I have been listening a lot in these past months to his new album Dear Companion (Sub Pop, 2010) with Daniel Martin Moore (produced by Jim James and starring a few of those rakish These United States-ers), as well as his 2008 debut album Learning To Bend. Ben’s songwriting is quick and intelligent, and he continues to grow marvelously as an artist. I highly recommend his music.

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After a few afternoon hours spent putting as much of our bodies as we could stand into the crystalline glacial river, while the bluegrass floated from the stage in the background, we dried off and headed in for the Court Yard Hounds. Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison were back at the Telluride festival on the 20th anniversary of them first winning the band competition as teenagers, back before they became Dixie Chicks and ruled country radio.

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I was dazzled by them, their poise and beauty and sparkles, and how they rocked such a wide variety of instruments – fiddle, banjo, mandolin, dobro. They referred to their new album as being not only a divorce album, but also one about finding love, and covered Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight,” a song Emily said got them through some dark times. The only Dixie Chicks song they played was the bluegrass instrumental, “Little Jack Slade.”

Three little girls stood right in front of me by the stage, all 5 or 6 years old, twirling and dancing in various tutus and wands and tie dyed clothes. I thought about what women they are for those girls to look up to, literally and figuratively. They were strong and confident, and I was drawn to the emotional rawness and feistiness on their new songs. After they finished, and I caught me some Lyle Lovett and his (no kidding) Large Band, it was Friday night, and it was time for the Mumford & Sons show.

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There is something primal and exceedingly honest in the harmonies and vocal melodies of London quartet Mumford & Sons, especially when you’re standing five feet away from their kickdrum that often provides the only percussion, and hits like a mallet to the sternum. I’ve loved them unabashedly since the first time I heard them, and I named their Sigh No More album one of my favorites of 2009. Telluride on Friday night witnessed their very first proper show in Colorado — and I imagine I will never again see a band playing their first show in a state where absolutely everyone sings along to every word, jumping giddily so hard that the floor bounces. The reception in that room blew me away, and led me to predict that this band will soon grow as huge in the States as they are in the UK, with as wide of an audience as their music deserves.

I’ve had a really difficult time trying to figure out how to tell you all about this show. I was talking to my best friend Bethany on the phone yesterday, trying to articulate what it was that so confounded me, satisfied me, and left me speechless and breathless all at once. “There’s a memory in our blood of people singing together the way those guys do,” she mused. “It triggers something bigger and older than us.” I’ve struggled to write about their show because it was so intense and meaningful, and as I wrote earlier in the week, one of the best shows I have absolutely ever seen.

Through a towering wall of power, their songs wrestle with love and grace, redemption and loss, struggling to be a better man — sometimes succeeding, and sometimes failing and burning. It’s the most relatable music I know of these days, on an acutely personal level, and seeing them blow the roof off live just about overwhelmed me in the best possible way.

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The basics: 300 people at a very sold-out show in the Sheridan Opera House, built in 1912 and still boasting the old warm globe lights around the stage, hand-painted detail on the balcony front. They started their set long after midnight with their four voices rising together for “Sigh No More,” quickly launching into “Awake My Soul” and an explosive rendition “The Cave,” then a huge new song called “Lover of the Light,” featuring lead singer Marcus Mumford behind an actual drum kit, instead of standing up and playing the bass drum while he strums. There was an ineffable joy and powerful hope rising up from the crowd – watch this video of “Roll Away Your Stone” from a few weeks ago in Los Angeles with the band The Middle East. I think we all felt like that.

After “Timshel” and “Little Lion Man” (crowd went nuts for their big single), they did “After The Storm,” “Dustbowl Dance,” an older song “Sister,” and another new song called “Nothing Is Written.” A tremendous version of “White Blank Page” was their encore. After those lines about “tell me now, where was my fault / in loving you with my whole heart?” at about three minutes into the song, the instruments cut out and that stirring vocal interlude begins — man, you can’t write it, but it’s the “ahhhhh, ahhhhhhhh, ah ah ah….” part (see? words fail me). The whole room started singing, louder and louder, and the walls were soaking in it and vibrating as we sang. Then the band picked up the urgent higher harmonies, and it was the closest to church I’ve been in a while.

Like this, very very much:

(all of this girl’s videos from their Dallas show are very good, and replicate almost exactly my vantage point in the crowd, and the way this show felt to me)

I left their show feeling so thoroughly sated and completely without coherent words, which is rare for me who always has words, and lots of them, for most occasions. I stayed behind to shake each of the band member’s hands, just so I could say “thank you.” Just a simple, heartfelt thank you for what they just put me through, and for the seams they ripped open and then helped mend. All my receptors were vibrant and content.

Walking home from that show at 2am on Friday night still glowing, I passed Ed Helms again, playing banjo on a street corner jam session, then a few blocks closer to the campsite I came across (pretty sure) Peter Rowan calling impromptu square dancing steps while playing the fiddle to a roiling flailing bunch of colorful folks while the cops looked on, bemused with arms crossed.

I tilted my head back at the ten million stars, a sky so dark I could see the bands of the Milky Way, and crossed a footbridge over the singing river to my campsite. Someone had left glow bracelets and glowsticks scattered in the inky blackness to help me find my way home. Welcome to Telluride.

I smiled, and was very very happy.

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April 29, 2010

My favorite song on the new Josh Ritter album: “Lantern”


This song made me cry in the car on the drive up to our listening party, the first time I’d really sat down and listened:

STREAM: Lantern – Josh Ritter

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Be the light in my lantern, be the light
I need light in my lantern, light in my lantern tonight

It’s a hungry world out there, even the wind will take a bite
I can feel the world circling, sniffing round me in the night
and the lost sheep grow teeth
forsake the lambs and lie with the lions

Where the living is desperate, precarious and mean
and getting by is so hard that even the rocks are picked clean
and the bones of small contention
are the only food the hungry find

I need light in my lantern, light for my lantern tonight

Where the thistles eat the thorns and the roses have no chance
and it ain’t no wonder that the babies come out crying in advance
and the children look for shelter
in the hollow of some lonesome cheek

And the sky’s so cold and clear, stars might stick you where you stand
and you’re only glad it’s dark cuz you might see the Master’s hand
and you might cast around forever
and never find the peace you seek

I need light in my lantern, light for my lantern tonight

For every cry in the night, somebody says, “Have faith!”
“Be content inside your questions,”
“Minotaurs inside the maze.”
Tell me what’s the point of light
that you have to strike a match to find?

So throw away those Lamentations, we both know them all too well
If there’s a Book of Jubilations we’ll have to write it for ourselves
So come and lie beside me darling
let’s write it while we still got time

So if you got a light (hold it high for me)
I need it bad tonight (hold it high for me)
cause I’m face to face (hold it high for me)
in a lonesome place (hold it high for me)
With all the hurt that I’ve done (hold it high for me)
that can’t be undone (hold it high for me)
light and guide me though (hold it high for me)
I’ll do the same for you (hold it high for me)

I’ll hold it high for you, cuz I know you’ve got
I’ll hold it high for you, your own Valley to walk
I’ll hold it high for you, though it’s dark as death
I’ll hold it high for you, and then gets darker yet
I’ll hold it high for you, though your path is blocked
I’ll hold it high for you, through the thieves and the rocks
I’ll hold it high for you, keep you safe from harm
Hold it high for you ’til you’re back in my arms

telluride-poster-09After hearing the new record, I’ve decided to go see Josh at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June (with Mumford and Sons, Dave Rawlings, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, among others).


[PS – “The Curse” is also an astounding song; I wrote some thoughts here. I’m laid out by it. Listen here.]

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April 22, 2010

Fuel/Friends Listening Party: new Josh Ritter (4/27, Denver)


Fuel/Friends is excited to be hosting an advance listening party of the new Josh Ritter album next Tuesday for happy hour at the Meadowlark in Denver!

So Runs The World Away won’t be out until May 4th, but I’m teaming up with the fine gentlemen at Gigbot host this opportunity for you to listen early, and enjoy some drink specials ‘n stuff while you’re at it. Come and hotly debate with me if Ritter is one of the most important songwriters of our generation, as I once postulated. I do love him so.

The Curse (live on Daytrotter) – Josh Ritter
[from their session released two weeks ago. I love how Ritter keeps tying together the idea of love with the vast unpredictability of the sea.]

Listen to another one of the new songs here, and the earlier version here.

Josh Ritter Listening Party
josh_ritter_so_runs_the_world_awaySo Runs The World Away
(out May 4 on their own label, Pytheas Records)
6-8pm on Tuesday, April 27th
The Meadowlark – 2701 Larimer St, Denver
$1 PBR $2 Wells $2 Domestics

Other nationwide Josh Ritter listening parties can be viewed here.

Also, there’s an open stage that night at The Meadowlark starting at 8:30 with Tyler Despres and Maria Kohler, if you feel like hanging around for even more good music. We won’t kick you out.

[photo credit Gigbot’s own Todd Roeth]

February 8, 2010

it’s only a change of time, love

change of time cover - ritter

My week just started wonderfully, with a free download in my inbox for “Change of Time” off Josh Ritter‘s forthcoming So Runs The World Away (May 4th in the US). The songs which fall from Josh’s pen and lilt from his guitar make him one of the most important songwriters of our generation (which some people disagree with me saying, because he’s not as commercially viable as, say, Green Day).

But it’s an interesting discussion (can art be “important” without being popular?) — and in the meantime I am thrilled to hear finished versions like this. I’ve been completely mesmerized by this song ever since I first posted a live version back on my birthday, and now I can untangle all the words.

Sometimes I feel like my memories are battered hulls and broken heart-ships, leviathan and lonely, too. I closed my eyes and kept on swimming.

Josh is writing a new blog called “(If there’s a) Book of Jubilations (we’ll have to write it for ourselves)” while he’s on tour this winter. I cannot wait for the full new album. Folks I know who have heard it were rendered void of meaningful speech, only able to say things to me in acronyms like “omg.”

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January 19, 2010

Hello blackbird, hello starling

…Winter’s over, be my darling
been a long time coming but now
snow is gone.

Josh Ritter is one of the most important songwriters of our generation, consistently producing breathtaking songs that are rife with symbolism, rich with meaning, and brimming over with the kind of heart that I want to have.

While we wait for his new album this year (one of my most anticipated in 2010, based on things like this) yesterday brought the news that Ritter is re-releasing Hello Starling, his third album, with all kinds of fancy extras.

This album contains several of my all-time favorite songs from Ritter: Kathleen (for lines like, “all the other girls here are stars, you are the northern lights” and “every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied”) and Bone of Song (a spine-tingly story about creative inspiration).

And also this one, which I have been listening the bejesus out of this last month. Even if a glance around me tells me that the snow is still here, the ice is caked in the shade, and the water is frozen over impenetrably, for a while when i listen to this song I can close my eyes and feel that real shoot of green hope, somewhere underneath. Hope in spite of this grey reality.

I’m underneath your window now
it’s long after the birds have gone to roost
and I can’t tell if I’m singing for the love of it
or for the love of you…

Snow Is Gone – Josh Ritter

This new 2-CD deluxe reissue of Hello Starling also includes a bonus CD of Josh performing the whole album solo acoustic, four live bonus cuts (Josh plus full band) as well as rewritten, spiffed up liner notes, photos, and essays. Buy it at Newbury Comics (limited booklets autographed by Josh) or at your independent record store ( Oh and while you’re at it – Josh also has a new song “Great Big Mind” on the 1% for the Planet compilation.

Josh Ritter is playing tonight at the Radio City Music Hall with The Swell Season, then it’s off to a bunch of dates in Europe. I plan to see him this summer at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with Mumford and Sons. Yes, please.

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August 19, 2009

your shoulderblade and spine were shorelines in the moonlight


I’ve been feeling a bit reclusive lately into my own quiet endeavors, simply digesting the music I have and easing off on the rabid consumption just a smidge, before it consumes me. It’s a mini phase, arguably tied with getting old, older (I am 30 today) — or perhaps just a symptom of the end of summer and the start of school with a hint of coolness in the air after sunset.

As the first suggestion of autumn nights creeps in, this new song by Josh Ritter instantly knocked the wind out of me tonight, and made me tear up (just a little — shhhh!) on my birthday, but I never mind it when music does that to me. I love the worlds Ritter creates, even though they are so often loaded with longing. This song is staggering.

I don’t remember what I dreamed last night, other than that there were words of optimism scrawled in black ink down my side. I’d fallen asleep with a head full of good thoughts and sparkling conversation, and woke up in a patch of sun, with a smile on my face for the decade to come. But somehow the ache and melancholy in this song strikes just the right chord with me tonight.

I Had A Dream Last Night (Change of Time) – Josh Ritter

(new song, live in Denver 7/23/09)

I had a dream last night, dreamt that I was swimming
and the stars came up, directionless and drifting
and somewhere in the dark, the silence and the thunder
around me as I swam, the drifters who’d gone under time, love
time, love
time, love
it’s only a change of time

I had a dream last night of rust, and far below me
battered hulls and broken heartships, leviathan and lonely
I was thirsty so I drank and though it was saltwater
there was something ’bout the way it tasted so familiar
time, love
time, love
time, love
it’s only a change of time, love

[unknown bridge about sails and silence, whitecaps of memory...]

I had a dream last night, and when I opened my eyes
your shoulderblade and spine were shorelines in the moonlight
new worlds for the weary, new lands for the living
I couldn’t make it if I tried
I closed my eyes, I kept on swimming
time, love
time, love
time, love
it’s only a change of time, love

An earlier live version, missing some verses but still gorgeous:

It’s only a change of time, love.

[photo at SF Noise Pop via Stranger Dance]

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June 16, 2009

they sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you got is rain


As I’ve blathered on about before, Josh Ritter is one of the most talented epic songwriters we got goin’ right now. His words and music are nothing short of poetry, demanding a closer listen over and over.

Somehow in the cold winter bustle of December, I missed two renditions he recorded of his songs with a string quartet from Dublin’s Vicar Street Orchestra. Josh has used strings before in his recorded music (listen: “The Temptation Of Adam“) and played live shows with orchestras to immense effect, but these versions take it to a whole new level of sublime.

Girl in the War is laden with conflicted biblical imagery (as with many of his songs), and the deep waters of ache get even more vast here with the taut beauty of the strings. They speak to me in ways that no other instrument can.

These lyrics are all I really want to listen to on this gray day.

Girl In The War – Josh Ritter with String Quartet
(originally from 2006′s Animal Years)

Paul said to Peter you got to rock yourself a little harder
pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire

But I got a girl in the war Paul, the only thing I know to do
is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through

…I got a girl in the war Paul, her eyes are like champagne
they sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you got is rain

they sparkle, bubble over
and in the morning all you got is rain

Also download a string version of “Empty Hearts” (originally from 2007′s Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter), and if you are still unacquainted with his genius, many of his incredible songs are available for free download here.

# with Joe Pug (!)
* with Blind Pilot (!)
% with Helio Sequence
@ with Langhorne Slim

July 04 – Cork, Ireland. The Marquee (with full 24-piece orchestra and Lisa Hannigan!)
July 07 – Cleveland, OH. Beachland Ballroom #
July 08 – Des Moines, IA. Vaudeville Mews #
July 09 – Minneapolis, MN. Varsity Theater #
July 10 & 11 – Winnipeg, MB Winnipeg Folk Festival
July 12 – Fargo, ND. The Aquarium
July 14 – Boise, ID. Egyptian Theatre *
July 15 – Boise, ID. Egyptian Theatre
(solo acoustic with string quartet. Tift Merritt supports)
July 16 – Sun Valley, ID. Elkhorn Resort (outdoor show)
July 17 – Kennewick, WA. Red Room %
July 18 – Moscow, ID. Rendezvous in the Park %
July 20 – Helena, MT. Myrna Loy Center @
July 21 – Bozeman, MT. The Emerson Cultural Center @
July 22 – Salt Lake City, UT. Urban Lounge @
July 23 – Denver, CO. Bluebird Theater @
July 24 – Lawrence, KS. The Bottleneck @
July 25 – Omaha, NE. Slowdown @
July 27 – Columbia, MO. Blue Note @
July 28 – St. Louis, MO. Off Broadway Nightclub @
July 29 – Louisville, KY. WFPK Waterfront Park (FREE)
July 30 – Chicago, IL. Metro
July 31 – London, ON. Music Hall
Aug 01 – Montreal, Canada. Osheaga Festival
Aug 02 – Newport, RI. Newport Folk Festival
Aug 15 – North Adams, MA. MASS MoCA Festival

(with Elvis Perkins, Ben Kweller and more)

[photo credit Eric Connolly]

February 28, 2009

in the frozen nights I go roaming in the bed you used to share with me

I’ve found myself smitten all over again these days with the song “Wolves” by Josh Ritter.

Two years ago this weekend, I sat transfixed as he performed it at my first Noise Pop show of 2007, at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco.

Wolves – Josh Ritter
(something inside of me careens into a sad void, suspended in the ache, when the verse at 2:48 starts. Such a magnificent song.)

I still remember that time when we were dancing, we were dancing to a song that I’d heard. Your face was simple and your hands were naked, I was singing without knowing the words. But I started listening to the wolves in the timber, wolves in the timber at night. I heard their song when I looked in the mirror, in the howls and the moons round my eyes…

So long, so high

Then winter came, and there was little left between us – skin and bones of love won’t make a meal. I felt my eyes lifted over your shoulder, there were wolves at the edge of the fields. But I still remember that time when we were dancing, we were dancing to a song that I’d heard. Your face was simple and your hands were naked, I was singing without knowing the words…

So long, so high

Then one day I just woke up and the wolves were all there, wolves in the piano, wolves underneath the stairs, wolves inside the hinges circling round my door, at night inside the bedsprings, clicking cross the floor. I don’t know how they found me I’ll never know quite how. I still can’t believe they heard me, that I was howling out that loud…

So long, so high

Sometimes in the frozen nights I go roaming in the bed you used to share with me. I wake in the field with the cold and the lonesome, the moon’s the only face that I see. I still remember that time when we were dancing, dancing to a song that I’d heard. Your face was simple and your hands were naked, I was singing without knowing the words.

So long so high

Ritter has a “teeny tiny Spring tour” coming up, in which the band will be taking a break from the studio, shaking off some rust, and playing new songs. Yeah, I’d recommend going.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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