On Thursday February 4, at the first of three scheduled shows at City Winery, Josh Ritter had many in the audience singing along to his classics, including "Monster Ballads" and "Snow is Gone." However, those two numbers made up only about 10 songs that have seen official release in a set of nearly thirty. Ritter was continuing a winter "Works in Progress" tour – smaller solo shows for the Idaho-born singer to road test new material which are different from his tour for 2015's Sermon on the Rocks where Royal City Band backed him.

Sermon contained the most raucous set of songs he's ever crafted, while maintaining his characteristically powerful and vivid imagery. On those tour dates, Ritter wore a jumpsuit splattered with paint, smiling as he performed and literally jumping with joyful energy. Speaking with the troubadour ahead of his City Winery shows, Ritter described how joy came to him as he performed. "I feel like I'm very lucky to be able to get on stage. And the joy just kind of happens. I don't know that I can take credit for getting so happy when I play. It's physiological. As soon as I step out on stage that just seems to happen."

The smile may occasionally mask nervousness. Ritter continued, "It feels like I'm about to run a race. It's nervous excitement. I won't say that I don't get nervous sometimes. But it's the tightrope walking that’s the really fun part. You can't wait to get out there, take chances and see what happens. Every show is different. Every show is its own animal. Things can change drastically. For the good or vice versa. It's always exciting."

Unfortunately, Ritter's daring on the tight rope the first night may have caused him to lose his footing, or rather his voice. Shortly before he was to take the stage on the second night, Ritter had to cancel per doctor's orders. Those City Winery dates have now been rescheduled for April 18 & 19 (tickets are not on sale yet) and Ritter has recovered his voice enough to resume his brief tour this week in North Carolina before he heads to Europe.

Generally though, he has no hesitation playing new songs on the road. "I try and keep things as wide open as I can with the songs for as long as possible. When a song is just done you know it's done. But oftentimes it's very valuable to play a song for someone else," Ritter says. "You don't really know how you feel about it until you play it for someone else. There is something about it that tells you whether you like it or not. It's not necessarily about the other person or how they are reacting. It's just a matter of 'how does this feel to present?' It's an odd thing.

I think it's a lot like when you see a movie and you think it's the greatest. But then you take your friend and then you realize that maybe this isn't the best. Or the other way around. You don't know what will happen to [a song] on stage when you first play it. That's what I'm doing right now. It's kind of a challenge to present the songs as fully formed as I can before I decide what songs I am going to work on and what songs are going to go on the record."

Ritter possessed an inkling of an idea for the direction Sermon's follow-up. "I'm getting a sense of how I want the songs to fit together. There are some that I am kind of up in the air about and I like to see how I feel performing them. But there is a sound for sure. I do want to keep it loose. Sermon is kind of a real breakthrough for myself personally. I'm anxious to kind of continue along that path – see where it goes. It was a joy to make. The songs are a joy to play. I'm hoping I can continue that streak."

Photo by Sachyn Mital

At City Winery, Ritter was clearly jubilant has he performed Sermon's defiant "Getting Ready to Get Down" with the lines, "Be good to everybody, be a strength to the weak / A joy to the joyful, the laughter in the grief." Over the phone, he drew a connection between the female character in the song to his young daughter – the song is about "a girl whose ideas are just a bit too risky for the town she was born in. Her insistence on her own self-reliance and convictions are the kinds of qualities I'd love to see and nurture in my own kids."

Ritter had several other rowdy and rollicking songs throughout his show. Two of the new ones, "Old Black Magic" and "Feels like Lightning" [may not be official titles], were definite candidates for enrichment via accompaniment by a full band. During the latter, Ritter identified a part where he wanted to include a horn section mid-chord. Clearly he didn't mind revealing his thought process. "I really enjoy the moment when you rip the sheet off the statue. And that's what these shows give me the chance to do. Even if [the songs] are unfinished, I relish the opportunity to show that I am working."

Many of Ritter's unreleased songs, on the other hand, sounded great performed solo. Some, like "Cry Softly" and "Lake Charlevoix" (which repurposed an old folk melody as the bed for Ritter's lyrics), are older than this current tour. But others, like "Patience," "Silver Blade" and "Train Go By" are making live appearances for the first time this year. These polished songs felt infused with "cowboy spirit," residue from Ritter's recent collaboration on Bob Weir's Blue Mountain. Ritter was effusive about Grateful Dead founding member. "I hardly ever collaborate, so the chance to work with a lion of American music was a huge and career defining experience. I've learned a great, great deal from Bob, and I hope to work with him again!"

Working with the celebrated Weir directly affected Ritter's craft in the past year or two but he draws influence from many other sources including Leonard Cohen (Ritter was part of the tribute at MHOW) and Pete Seeger. The late folk singer could share powerful protest songs for the current political climate. Ritter himself didn't have a protest song at City Winery, but he commended the Yemeni-American bodega owners for going on strike. For his role in political activism, Ritter acquiesced, "It is really difficult to think about writing right now. There's so much else to do, to work on. I feel that my place in this whole situation is not as a songwriter but as an individual taking action in a lot of the ways everyone else is taking action: calling my senators, calling my representatives, working with and donating to causes I feel are important.

I always believed that one of the things that happens while I'm trying to make a record is that it ends up being a reflection of my mind in the time," Ritter continued. "The time period when it was created. There [are] some jittery songs I'm working on. They are not necessarily political in any way but there is an unease with which I am working. I think it's in there. As much as there is joy, I'm constantly aware of how lucky I am. How lucky we are as a family. I think that will come out in the songs. I can't say that I'm writing protest songs right now. I'm trying my best to write what I am feeling. It's hard right now."

And on the eventual new album, Ritter confided, "I will definitely have something out this year, but [I'm] not sure when. Hopefully it will be a small light in a dark time."

All upcoming Josh Ritter tour dates are listed, along with the setlist and a few more pictures from his 2/2 City Winery show, below.

Photo by Sachyn Mital
Photo by Sachyn Mital

City Winery 2/2/17 Setlist: (titles in quotes may not be official)
Girl in the War
Me & Jiggs
New Song 1 ("Patience")
New Song 2
New Song 4 ("Cry Softly")
New Song 5 ("Old Black Magic")
New Song 6 ("The Bride")
New Song 7 ("Feels Like Lightning")
New Song 8 ("Friend of Mine")
New Song 9 ("When Will I Be Changed")
Monster Ballads
New Song 10 ("Silver Blade")
New Song 11 ("Showboat")
New Song 12 ("In the Darkness")
Where the Night Goes
New Song 13 ("Oh Lord")
Henrietta, Indiana
New Song 14 ("Hard to Find a Heart")
New Song 15 ("Train Go By")
New Song 16 ("Lake Charlevoix")
New Song 17 ("Dreams")
New Song 18 ("Strangers")
Getting Ready to Get Down
Snow is Gone
[encore break]
Joy to You Baby
New Song 19 ("Be of Good Heart")

Tour Dates:
Feb 10 - McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square (Rescheduled from 12/2), Charlotte, NC
Feb 11 - Modlin Center/Jepson Theatre (Rescheduled from 12/3), Richmond, VA
Feb 14 - Gruner Salon, Berlin, Germany
Feb 15 - Zonnehuis, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Feb 16 - Paradijskerk, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Feb 17 - St. Stephen’s Church, London, United Kingdom
Feb 18 - Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, Ireland
Feb 19 - Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, Ireland
Mar 25 - Texas Music Revolution, Plano, TX
Apr 18 - City Winery (Rescheduled from 2/3), New York, NY
Apr 19 - City Winery (Rescheduled from 2/4), New York, NY
Jun 17 - Clearwater Festival, Croton Point Park, Croton-On-Hudson, NY

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