For 26 years Central Park’s Summerstage has been synonymous with “great shows, free!,” and this season’s opener, Josh Ritter and the New York Pops, was no exception.
The forecast said rain, but the weather was balmy and sundress-perfect. The Pops warmed up the crowd with a dramatic string intro as Ritter –32, confident, capable and gracious– strolled onstage, all Eton-schoolboy suit, corkscrew curls and toothy grin.
He greeted the crowd-“I’m so excited, y’all”-his twang more likely an auspicious result of his Johnny Cash devotion rather than any Moscow, Idaho birthright. A former neuroscience major, the quirky Oberlin student finished with a major he invented himself (American History through Narrative Folk Music) and recorded his first album on-campus. Upon graduation, he did a six-month stint in Scotland (honing that twang), before returning to the States to play open-mics in Providence and Boston.
Sounds like a guy you know, right?
Maybe he’s a guy I did know. I lived in Boston, I frequented those open-mic nights in 2002, when a roommate lent me a copy of The Golden Age of Radio, which someone had passed along to her.
She didn’t know much about the artist (“Maybe he’s from Ireland,” she said), and when I asked around, his name seemed routinely unfamiliar. But I was in the midst of one of those tumultuous on-and-off long-distance gigs that haunt directionless, somewhat-fresh university grads, and songs like “Come and Find Me” (Every time I see your face/ Bells ring in a far-off place/ We can find each other this way I believe) and the literary ghost-tale of “Harrisburg” (Some say Man is the root of all evil/ others say God’s a drunkard for pain/ Me I believe that the Garden of Eden/Was burned to make way for a train) not only hit their mark, they made me homesick for the endless tracks and furrowed fields of Mississippi. At the time, I considered Ritter a young man who wrote old man’s songs, in the vein of early Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen.
With a little more life under my belt, I now know that despite the Biblical allusions and grimy lyrics, his songs are altogether too clean, his tenor too smooth and conventionally pretty for such wayward comparisons. Ritter has appeal all his own…