“I’d like to dedicate the final verse of this song to how hot it’s going to get in here,” smiled Josh towards the end of his third song, Good Man. It wasn’t a wildly bold prediction, given that this was a compact underground venue in London in the midst of the country’s most prolonged heatwave since 2006, but it was accurate nonetheless.
Having opened with a solo version of Bruce Springsteen’s The River, the following hundred minutes would draw from all angles of his seven record career, all performed with an impossibly infectious smile which defies Josh’s divorce and near-death experience of the last few years.
There’s an electric energy and enthusiasm to the set. Even songs from current album The Beast In Its Tracks covering Josh’s divorce, such as Hopeful, are cheerful and uplifting, while Joy To You Baby wishes “joy to the many.”
Despite the complexity of some of Josh’s lyrics they have a poetic resonance and the foot-stomping Lillian, Egypt provides a lusty sing-along, while Wolves sees him lead the audience in a chorus of wolf howls. It was a surreal moment, but it gave birth to an epic climax to the song.
There were softer moments in the set, where Josh’s smile gave way to a more dramatic serious demeanour. The lights in the cave-like venue were dimmed for the museum love affair in The Curse, while The Temptation of Adam and Folk Bloodbath exhibit the full extent of Ritter’s artistic prowess.
The pace of the set quickened again as the lights returned and the heat rose in a “misty, sexy smell”. Kathleen, one senses, was the song everyone was waiting to sing, and its words can’t fail to tug on your emotions, even with Josh teasing the final verse with a tangent about buying a red van to go and look for his baby.
To The Dogs or Whoever was a fitting instrument drenched finale, with three men violently thrashing the drum set, piano keys pounded wildly and Josh rhyming off lines like he was Jay Z, slowing down only to demonstrate his beating heart at the “did I mention how I love you in your underwear” line.
Ordinarily the idea of being crammed into such a small cave-like venue with a mass of hot, sweaty arms and legs would seem like a nightmare. But at Village Underground with Josh Ritter and his band it was a joyful experience.