Josh Ritter @ Brooklyn Steel or: Where all the Black Folk (music fans) at?
Walking into Brooklyn Steel the first thing I notice about tonight's Josh Ritter concert is the same thing that I always notice. Whether its a January weekend at Manhattan's gilded Beacon or on November 9, 2016 at a small New Jersey theatre, the first question is always "where are all the people of color?"
First, I should say that that is by no means an indictment of the folk rocker and his Royal City Band, and second, if you don't know who Josh Ritter is, you should get to spotifying. It's an uncomfortably wet autumn night, the first really fall night of the year and I'm about to make my way slowly from the upper west side, across the island and under the river to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Not only because I've put far more effort than that into seeing Ritter play in the past, but tonight's show was meant as a birthday gift for a friend, one of the few I have who regularly partake of Ritter's genius.
Somewhere in there though my friend tells me that he's somehow stuck in Boston (it's been a big week) and I should summon a new dance partner. It's not simple to convince anyone to break up their Sunday night in most instances, but between the storm, and the hour they'd have to find their party spirit and make it out, well. Luckily a friend I've not seen in over a year (since one of Ritter's tour dates in support of his last album in fact) not only knows a bit of the Idahoan's ouvre, but also lives down the street from the theatre. It's worth mentioning that both of these friends are white, though Dalton Makepeace can certainly trace a bloodline, as well as that surname, to one or two Amerindian tribes.
But Dalton's only going to make it just in time for the first few chords, and I'm early.
Josh Ritter has been famously named "one of the 100 greatest living songwriters" by Paste Magazine. A Kurt Hernon review of his debut album (a record he recorded at an Oberlin College studio while an undergrad there) reminds us that he plays "Bob Dylan's Folk Music." He's also been the subject of a charming corner of Esquire Magazine penned by Mary-Louise Parker.
The child of pair of neuroscientists I guess it shouldn't seem strange that his hyper literary narrative folk songs wouldn't end up on the same playlists as Jay-Z, or Chic, John Legend, or even Darius Rucker, but that doesn't feel like a good enough explanation of the the rather homogenous sea of music lovers around me .
So as I roam the spacious and overwhelmingly urban interior of yet another of the "Bowery Present's" holdings, I climb the stairs of the balcony for a better chance at finding the few non-white fans that just must be around someplace. I don't have much luck, and am beginning to worry that the space seems far from full. By the time I give up searching, I fall into a self consciousness that hasn't been typical for me in "cool" places in a long time. Usually my dreadlocks, light eyes, and ethnic ambiguity will get me through most situations without anyone taking too close of a look at the other accoutrement that would give me away as someone not exactly belonging to that corner of a culture.
I chalk it up to my subconscious assumption that the late 80's Levi's jacket repurposed from my mother that's all of a sudden near painfully trendy, might mark me as someone who belongs there just a little too much, and move on. Luckily, even if not the most multi-ethnic group, a Josh Ritter concert is certainly made up of many, many disparate subcultures, so no one every really sticks too far out or in.
I look around, take in the massive backdrop of the stage painted by Ritter himself, and claim a good spot on the General Admission floor. Figure I might as well take another peak around. I spot 2 or 3 Asian-Americans and am not surprised, that's about the extent of who I see at any of these. The search gets old, I know what I'll find. You do get the occasional celebrity at these, like I said, many disparate subcultures. But not here, not tonight.
And then, suddenly, I'm able to make sense of why tonight's crowd feels a little different. It's a rainy, fall, Sunday, in Brooklyn. These people wanted to come out, but also, didn't have to trek to Manhattan, or New Brunswick, or any of the other venues I've ventured to for a chance to hear Ritter's reimagining of Stag-A-Lee (Folk Bloodbath) or his light speed denouncement of sexual morays (Getting Ready to Get Down).
They were tired, they were chill, they were glad to be there, and most of them were not the denim clad 20-somethings I was expecting. There's always a Gen X portion of his audience, he's been rocknrolling for quite some time now, though you wouldn't know it to look at him. Tonight however, it feels different, not only are these hometown fans (Ritter himself lives just a few subway lines away these days) these are his contemporaries, people who grew up with his music while he was growing up making it. He celebrated his 41st birthday just last week, so tonight is not just another millennial house.
The opening act hits the stage, three guys from Philly who are clad in just the right amount of denim to betray their youth. They're called "Good Old War" and they're fun enough and have a "Dawes" thing going for them and Dalton's texted me that he's here and that the box office can't find his ticket. I tell him to ask the girl, not the boy at the window, she know's where it is. He gets in and goes to the bar, I raise my phone in the hopes that he'll be able to zero in on it, but just long enough to not feel like a dick for doing it. It all works out.
"Good Old War" plays on, it seems accordions are in again. At one point they begin to play a piece that I recognize, which catches me by surprise. Two guys in their mid-to-late twenties near by have begun to sing along. They see me notice them, I smile in support, what's folk music (of any bent) without a sing-a-long after all? The chorus hits and I know it too, likely from some coffee house-late-evening-roots rising-viral-commute-top 25 Spotify playlist I've come across. Golly the power of those things.
The war ends and Dalton and I have a chance to catch up. He's been traveling, spent 2% of the last year on a plane. Same girlfriend, new pad, wildly cheap flight to Vietnam for Thanksgiving. I've been out of New York for a while, been filming, the main character of the movie "plays Josh Ritter's Folk Music," I tell him. The lights go down again.
You've never seen a musician enjoy themselves as much as Ritter does, you haven't. With a boyish smile ear to ear and eyes shut in the pure ecstasy of the thing, even this deep into yet another tour we're getting what we paid for.
When you can set down a line like "All the other girls here are stars, you are the northern lights," just as easily as "Joan never cared about the in between, combed her hair with a blade did the Maid of Orleans," you're going to find your people. And as exciting as the boyish Ritter, his wildly mustachioed bassist and their merry men are, they seem weighed down by something. But the place is full now and they're playing my song and I haven't seen them do it in a year.
Almost exactly a year. November 9, 2016, the night after Donald Trump wins the Presidential Election. Liam, the friend who's stuck in Boston, and I have tickets to see Ritter at New Jersey's South Orange Performing Arts Center. Liam's never been to one of his shows, in fact Josh Ritter is the first artist who's music we can both agree to enjoy wholeheartedly. It's a small show, just him and Zack Hickman, the mustachioed bassist. I've taken a train from Penn Station, Liam's driven from somewhere near Rutger's, but I beat him there.
While canvassing the small Mainstreet I pass a restaurant window where, to my complete joy, sit Ritter and Hickman, eating sushi. I don't realize soon enough to gawk, so I make another, very sneaky pass, and it's definitely them. I consider going in, Ritter is famously gracious and had been kind to me once before while promoting his last album "Sermon on the Rocks." But tonight seems different, there's none of that joy Dalton and I were seeing. Liam shows up and I bring him to the window, we walk back and forth, leering just a little, as if trying to enter Harry Potter's Room of Requirement, the weight over their sushi is tangible even through the glass.
We make our way to the theatre and by the time Ritter takes the stage he's nearly his old self, nearly. Billed as a supplemental tour with a few new songs he's workshopping, there's an informality difficult to nurture with a full band and cheap seats to reach. He stops part way through "Girl in the War," a song he'd written in protest during the Bush years, though it bares none of the hallmarks of a protest folk song. He begins again, and stops again. And then, for the next 4 minutes he shares a wave of the carefully considered emotional confusion of a man, artist, and new father who has no clue how to come to terms with, or even begin to speak about, what he'd seen on the news the night before.
It was something that would be attempted by every actor, musician, undergrad class president, and golden globe nominee for the next 7 months, and not one would do it half as earnestly. This wasn't pretense or proselytization, it was just a guy asking for help, and for the hundred or so of us with him that night, to share a song or two. Those feelings, and those songs, must have become what Dalton and I were hearing tonight, because "Gathering" is as different an album from "Sermon on the Rocks," as it clear, that it was penned by the same soul.
Dalton seems to be enjoying himself, which I'm glad of, you never know with a last minute folk-rock buddy. But Ritter's fun. Yes he's bright and literate and intelligent, but my god Josh Kaufman's electric guitar. That's the thing about Ritter's Folk Rock, it's got a lot of rock. So please, don't let yourself get turned off by the image of a young Dylan with a mouth harp, this is music for anybody. Which makes me look up again in search for a face to break the pale tide, a woman who may be half Vietnamese sticks out, for a moment. I've taken the few boomerangs and photographs I'll need for this and to keep up a dope AF insta (right) and find myself tiring. Sure it's 9:20 and its Sunday and my mother's repurposed Levi's jacket is a bit wet from the rain, but this is Josh Ritter, what's wrong with me?
I chalk it up to both the audience and the band's slightly less than typical magic (it is Sunday night after all. And the band's deep into their tour). They're still rockin' hard though. Soon enough the band leaves Josh alone with his guitar, a staple of their shows, he is a singer/songwriter after all. But for the next song Hickman comes back to the stage and he and Ritter cram themselves next to a mic that's been sitting in a no-man's-land portion of the stage all night. And all of a sudden, they're alive, as alive as I've ever seen them and more alive than they've been all night.
Soon enough the whole band comes out, gathers around the single mic a-la George Clooney's "Sing into the Can" scene in "O Brother! Where Art Thou?" Whether they were communing with the gods of folk music, glad to have found a new way to get through "Kathleen" (one of Ritter's biggest hits, certainly the most shouted out by 'that girl' at every public performance) or were just happy to have been able to leave their respective corners of the stage and be allowed to play the songs perhaps just a little differently than you know them. From here on out they had us all, and the audience had the lyrics to prove it.
After a time the hootenanny set up morphed back to it's rock concert roots, the lights dim and Ritter begins one of his new cuts. He waits a moment until the lights manage to throw him into shadow the way they rehearsed. He gives a shy little laugh and justifies the beat with "Ya know, new songs are like first dates. You really need dim light."
The music continues, he plays alone, they hoot again, the music continues, the show ends, the encore begins. They crowd around the single mic once more, the pianist holds an accordion, the drummer either a small conga or tambourine. The audience knows every word of "Getting Ready to Get Down," and can say them all right along with Ritter, which is no small feat. They close with a rather deep cut, morph it into a low level instrumental fantasia and play themselves off.
The lights come up, someone near the front grabs a setlist and sooner than I would like Dalton and I are back in the rain. We consider a cab, but his walk won't be terrible and it's in the direction of my train. He's into "Portugal the Man" right now, I've been listening to "Lost Dog Street Band." He's forgotten that there's a closer L train and we part ways quickly so I can cross before the light. We make tentative plans to see one another again soon at a potluck that might go down.
I stand beneath a shallow awning giving myself a final moment to decide whether or not to go back to the theatre in the hopes of making a new friend, it's not often that Josh Ritter fans run into one another (many disparate subcultures) and we try to take advantage of it. It's Sunday night though, and I doubt it will be worth while. I pass the entrance to the subway, I'm not certain that I'm done with the night, though the angle of the rain would have convinced any sane person otherwise. The Dunkin Donuts on the corner doesn't sound enticing enough, and I can always find something at home. I say goodnight to the borough and turn towards the Manhattan bound L. Three women dart down the stairs and out of the rain, one at least wearing a costume that makes me wish I were at her steampunk Halloween party, another mutters something about her poster getting wet.
By the time I've made it to the platform it looks like I was wrong on multiple counts. Not only is the woman in the wild dress and veil in fact not coming from a steampunk Halloween party, but from the concert. She also happens to be black. The two girls with her, a little younger, invite me to break my eavesdropping and join their conversation in earnest.
I ask the veiled woman why she thinks there are so few ethnicities represented among Ritter's fans. She's not sure, but she's certainly noticed. The train comes, one of the girls is an actress six months into New York, this is the first she's heard any of his music, she likes his Hamlet jokes. Her friend, the real Ritter fan, had gotten them VIP passes to meet him before the show, and had come in from Long Island for a big night. The four of us post game, I get off at the wrong 14th street but get back on, the girls are gone and the veiled lady and I spend a few more moments pondering are question. We say good night.
As I make my way underground from the L to the 123, I regret not getting to talk to the other two more, I figure I have enough information to find them on instagram, but just like that, there they are. It seems my confusion at the wrong 14th street tipped them off that they were mistaken as well. We get on, the fan gets off, the actress and I continue north, she's amazed by Ritter's ability to be so emotive from behind closed eyes. It's an actor's observation but a true one. This leads us to "Once" and Glen Hansard, Ritter's first major benefactor. She's only seen the musical, the film's much better, she likes that idea. I'm always stealing things from that film, she likes that too.
She finds my Facebook. We get off the train, she catches another one, I walk home. I know I don't have the energy to make another attempt to wrap my head around Sam Kassir's piano piece of Ritter's "Homecoming," so I switch on the keyboard I begin to teach my self "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart," the Tom Wait's standard. Louis Armstrong once said "It's all folk music, I ain't never heard a horse sing it." Or at least, somebody once said that Louis Armstrong said it.
We make so much of the lines between our cultures and sub cultures and tastes and playlists. But cultures aren't passed through our genes and no number of melanin heavy double helix's will stop you from appreciating "But now talkin' to God is Laurel beggin' Hardy for a gun. I got a girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done." So I can only imagine that when no members of entire swaths of a population can find their way into any cultural corner, its not because they don't want to, it's because they were told they shouldn't bother, or weren't told about it at all. We all need music like Ritter's, it's old and new and literate and basic educated and everyman and all american. And Ritter's music needs people like all of us. Like all of us.
Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band are on tour through February.
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