Arts & Entertainment

Josh Ritter's burnin' up

Cracker said it best in their '90s hit song Teen Angst: "What the world needs now is another folk singer, like I need a hole in my head."

You can find them in any coffee shop in any town -- strumming an acoustic guitar and singing songs that don't transcend further than interrupting a passerby from his daily routine.

Take Bob Dylan. He didn't become BOB DYLAN until he plugged in and slipped the surly bonds of folk going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He drew boos, but he -- much like Moscow, Idaho, native singer-songwriter Josh Ritter -- knew you had to pump up the volme to get people to listen amid the din of everyman's songs of everyday experiences.

Ritter, who will play at the Red Room in Kennewick on July 17, made this leap in 2007 with the album Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Ritter had made small waves with quiet folk albums with loud lyrics ripe in political protest poetry like Girl in the War off 2006's Animal Years.

But it wasn't until Conquest that Ritter backed his narrative songs with the cacophony of a full band with electric guitars, horns and more experimentation in favor of resting on his storytelling laurels. What followed was a leap that drew from the sonic experimentation Chicago band Wilco employed on their label-orphaned breakout Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

"I was tired of writing with a guitar," Ritter's bio excuses. But it was more than that in what follows later. "The air of gravitas around me was getting oppressive." And that's the nail.

Ritter spoke with me recently over the phone while he was walking the streets of New York City on his way to a museum to check out an exhibit from Irish figurative painter Francis Bacon -- an indication of his Irish (musically, at least) roots.

Ritter kicked off his current 24-city tour in Ireland on July 4. It was there where he got his break as an artist when Irish rockers The Frames invited him nearly a decade ago to open for them on tour.

"Going back to Ireland feels like a chance to account for yourself," Ritter said. "I grew up (as a musician) playing there. And you better not fake it, because they'll know."

Ritter still maintains a friendship with Frames frontman Glen Hansard who skyrocketed to fame for his role in the indie romance film Once. And the ability to keep in touch, not only with his musical brethren, but also his fans is a key part of what has kept his followers growing, not to mention feeding his art.

"I know I put in a lot of nonbillable hours in this job," he said. "But I don't think it's too much to ask after me putting in a couple hours on stage to hang out for a while after the show.

"It's so easy to jump on the tour bus and go. It can become a very surgical process. But I'd miss out on book recommendations, weird conversations and ideas that lead to songs."

Though Ritter's evolution as a performer has put him on stages across the world and in front of full orchestras, it's the small moments that remind him why he still does what he's doing. Check on YouTube and you can see him playing with the Boston Pops and during the song Rumors he utters the line, "My orchestra is gigantic."

The burst of cheers that ensues overwhelms the audio.

"Those are the moments that I think about when I go to bed, then wake up and say 'Did that really happen?' "

Ritter will be supported by Portland indie-electro duo The Helio Sequence as well as folk rocker Scott Ryan. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. July 17 at the Red Room, 711 Vineyard Drive, Kennewick. Tickets are $15. For more information, go to redroomcoffeeandconcerthouse.com.

You also can listen to Ritter's music, download MP3s and watch videos at joshritter.com.

*Jeremy Dutton: 582-1525; jdutton@tricityherald.com; blog at tricityherald.com/papercuts.

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