Listening to music at 7 p.m. in Los Angeles typically is a trapped-in-your-car-in-traffic experience. That’s how it was for many trying to make it to this early-evening concert as two movie premieres and one movie premiere protest closed down Hollywood Boulevard by the Knitting Factory. Those fortunate enough to elude the roadblocks, however, were treated to an impressive half-hour opening set from talented young singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. With his sweetly shy and humble demeanor, the baby-faced Ritter looked rather unassuming onstage accompanying himself on a well-worn acoustic guitar, but he turned in a thoroughly engaging performance.
During the gentle, Nick Drake-vibed “Come And Find Me”, he so captured the crowd’s attention that you hear the bartenders’ chatter from the back of the room. He showed his more rough-hewn, twangier side on “Me & Jiggs”, a small-town tale inspired by his teenage years in Idaho. Besides cherry-picking some prime tunes from his revelatory 2002 release Golden Age Of Radio, Ritter also played several new numbers, including “Bone Of Song” (a lovely ode to writing) and “Kathleen” (which revealed that his Dylan influence extends beyond his Blonde On Blonde-like mop of hair).
Taking the stage a little after 8, John Wesley Harding joked with the now more sizable crowd over the concert’s early start-time and the gauntlet of protesters outside the club. Harding has long been known for his entertaining shows filled with his clever songs, some heartfelt ones, and plenty of witty banter — and this 90-minute set didn’t disappoint. He opened with the delightfully satirical Confessions Of St. Ace track “Goth Girl” and followed with “It Stays”, a thoughtful rumination on a broken relationship from his not-yet-released The Man With No Shadow (lost in the demise of Mammoth Records).
Later in the set, he regaled the audience with the backstory behind “For An Actress”, a track on his new disc Swings And Roundabouts (being sold only at shows and through his website). It was originally called “To Catherine Zeta Jones”, but the title had to be changed after “The Man” demanded it. He introduced another Swings And Roundabouts song, “The Governess” (a bright spoof of grand BBC costume dramas), by saying, “I love nothing more than watching ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ with a raging Anglophile.”
Harding, however, offered more than just humorous tunes. His rendition of “Little Musgrave” from Trad Arr Jones showed he can play it straight, while his own “Our Lady Of The Highways” (with Ritter singing the duet part done by Steve Earle on disc) is a touching song of being separated from the one you love.
Harding will forever battle comparisons to Elvis Costello for their shared love of wordplay and vocal similarities. He displayed one advantage, however, over the more musically adventurous Costello. Accompanied, for the most of show, by only the versatile Robert Lloyd, Harding kept things simple and played to his strength: his marvelous way with words. While he may never have Costello’s acclaimed career, Harding can always be counted on for a smart, fun show.