Stumbling in from the rain the audience take their seats within the concert hall; the stage is dressed for the night ahead. At the back of the concert hall looms a gigantic blue eye staring out towards the crowd. After a short wait, the lights dim and the audience let out a cheer. A female musician takes her place at the center of the stage; this is Tift Merritt, an American singer-songwriter from North Carolina.
She plays through a collection of her tracks, originating from the vast supply of material she has gathered over the years. The audience is entranced. After the first couple of songs, she turns to her microphone and comments wryly: “I have never seen Manchester so well behaved before.”
Amongst her most well received tracks of the night are a cover of Tom Waits’s ‘Train Song’, performed without the aid of a microphone, and a rendition of her own song ‘Another Country’. The standout attribute of the performance is her magnificent voice that never fails to reach a note. She leaves the stage to tumultuous applause following a spectacular performance. The audience wants more, but it is now time for the headline act.
There is a brief intermission before the lights dim again, ushering in the headline performer. Two individuals begin to play ‘Best For The Best’ from Josh Ritter’s fourth studio album, The Animal Years, but there is no sign of the man himself; he comes out not long after to a rapturous ovation from those in attendance, completing the band. The atmosphere is extraordinarily intimate within the concert hall.
Following on from this opening track, they launch into a song from his latest record, The Beast in its Tracks. The song is ‘Certain Light’, one of the standout pieces of music from his career spanning over a decade.
This is followed by two tracks from 2010’s So Runs The World Away, ‘Southern Pacifica’ and ‘Folk Bloodbath’.
The first of these is a reflective tune about a central protagonist being on a train, not knowing where he is heading but being sure that he will meet his destiny wherever he ends up. This is an incredibly poignant piece, as is reflected by the stunned silence from the crowd throughout the whole of its duration.
The second track, meanwhile, follows more of a narrative, Josh Ritter taking a third-person approach to songwriting. ‘Folk Bloodbath’ follows the exploits of a bunch of characters from other notable folk songs, tracing their activities as they all eventually get buried “six feet beneath the clay”. This song in particular is an example of the artist’s impeccable ability for telling stories within his music.
Other notable tracks that follow are ‘The Curse’, ‘Hopeful’, and ‘Darlin’. The first is an allegory based around the relationship between a mummy and a Victorian archaeologist. For the performance of this song the musician asked that the lights be turned off, meaning that it was performed entirely in the dark; this created a remarkable ambience to the piece.
The next track of the above, ‘Hopeful’, contrasted significantly. It carried a much lighter tone, demonstrating the versatility of Josh Ritter’s work. This was something that was later expanded upon with ‘Darlin’, a track taken from his 2012 EP Bringing in the Darlings.
The songs ‘Girl in The War’ and ‘Kathleen’ were also received extremely well: both of the tracks provoking a tremendous round of applause from the crowd.
As an encore, guitarist Zach Hickman returns to the stage to the surprise of the audience, acknowledging their shock with a simple, rather comical statement: ‘I bet you guys weren’t expecting this.’
Regardless, the audience is welcoming to the musician. They warm to his humour and listen attentively to his song about a lonely cephalopod in the deep sea, inspired by his interest in the BBC documentary Planet Earth.
After its completion, he welcomes the headliner, Josh Ritter, back to the stage. The musicians onstage begin to play the song ‘Wait For Love’, a track that draws attention to Josh Ritter’s ability to manipulate an audience. Somehow he miraculously manages to stir the crowd from their passivity into singing along with the refrain. He leaves the audience following this with a series of kind words.
The audience departs back into wet and dreary streets of Manchester transformed by a perfect evening of music. Josh Ritter truly made his talent known tonight, as did the support. If you have the chance to catch him on his current UK tour, please don’t hesitate to snap up tickets.
Written by: Jack Yarwood