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Live Review and Photos: Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band, April 19, 2011, Scala – London, UK

Josh Ritter probably makes the most inoffensive music ever. His brand of indie folk could easily soundtrack movies and commercials, get decent radio play, and be found in the CD players of people of all ages. This does not make for the most energetic, exciting, or risky live show ever, but Josh Ritter and the Royal City band do put on two hours of solid, good-hearted entertainment, and for the second night in a row the fans of London lapped it up with glee.

For Josh Ritter, performing is visibly the thing he was born to do. This is evidenced by the broad grin he wears plastered on to his face whenever he’s on stage. Ritter started off the set on his own with a stripped-back version of “Monster Ballads,” and even though this is a sad song, Ritter smiled throughout, like someone singing about a past experience; the kind that’s mortifying at the time but makes you smile when you look back on it a few years down the line. The ostensibly relatable character that Ritter brought to the stage was instantly engaged with by the audience.

The Royal City Band joined Ritter onstage after the opening number to play “Other Side” and then launched into the first sing-along of the night, “Good Man.” For their part, the Royal City Band did not move about much, but the connection between the band members was clear through the tightness of their playing. Zack Hickman on bass and Austin Nevins flanked Ritter both visually and vocally, adding to the polished sound. All of the members of the Royal City Band played for themselves just as much as they played for the audience, clearly enjoying putting on a show and encouraging the crowd to get involved whenever possible, dropping the volume to allow the crowd’s singing to become more audible in the peak moments.

The body of the set drew heavily from Ritter’s newest album, So Runs The World Away, but any frustrations from fans wanting to hear older songs were not made and would have been completely out of step with the general bonhomie that filled the room. Ritter even drew upon this good will to perform a couple of recently released b-sides solo, which were both well received, particularly “Galahad” – the humorous tale of the famous knight’s arrival at the gates of Heaven.

In the second half of the night, the performance was kicked up a gear and the Royal City Band went above and beyond to support their leader. During an extended “Harrisburg” that saw Ritter talk mid-song for minutes on end about musicals, before building into a short cover of Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime,” the band followed unafraid. During a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” the guys abandoned their instruments to sing four-part harmonies around a single microphone. And in the main-set closing “Change Of Time,” the band built up to a fitting conclusion, including Zack Hickman taking co-lead vocals.

Through the whole night, the agreeable air grew more and more pleasant, like a good dinner party as the guests drink more wine (probably beer on this occasion) and the host (Ritter in this instance) keeps bringing out more entertaining anecdotes. By the time “Kathleen” was played, Ritter was encouraging the crowd to slow dance with their partners, and there were a large number who obliged. And for everything Ritter and his band gave, the crowd gave back; laughing at the jokes, cheering at the hammed-up guitar duels, and holding up mobile phones in response to the line “if you’ve got a light hold it high for me” in “Lantern.”

All of this serves to solidify for me that Josh Ritter could never have been anything other than an entertainer. The final piece of proof was in the encore when he played “Snow Is Gone,” a song that he has been playing for nearly a decade now. From this performance you’d think it was the first time he’d ever done so, the joy of the moment clearly radiating from his face – and I don’t doubt that he brings this same enthusiasm to every show. The crowd reciprocated these feelings, singing along louder than at any other point in the night, and this reaction is clearly why Ritter continues to play with such ecstasy. And the best thing is, every time he comes back they’re only going to sing louder.

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