Josh Ritter with the Minnesota Orchestra, 7/15/10

Josh Ritter with the Minnesota Orchestra, 7/15/10
Photos by Alexa Jones

Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band with the Minnesota Orchestra
July 15, 2010
Orchestra Hall

Of all the Dylan acolytes to make their mark thus far in the aughts, Idaho native Josh Ritter would seem to have the inside track on best living up to the pride of Hibbing's lofty standards over the long haul. The 33-year-old can lay claim to all the key ingredients a "new Dylan" needs: a relatively isolated upbringing (he was born and raised in tiny Moscow, Idaho), a surprisingly malleable voice (he can turn from warm tenor with just a dash of twang to shit kicking' rambling blues Cowboy with snarl to spare on a dime), and, most importantly, a similarly audacious in scope lyrical sensibility. While Ritter's never going to have mass popular success -- what true folkie does these days? -- he's managed to build an enviably solid career by dint of consistently solid albums backed up by a truly epic road warrior work ethic. Even, so, it's one thing to be an NPR darling and quite another to be booked as the headliner at Orchestra Hall and have your work fleshed out by a nationally recognized string section. Recent performers to receive the orchestral pop makeover at the hands of the Minnesota Orchestra have been of significantly higher star wattage (Ben Folds, Elvis Costello), and featured extensive catalogs that often made prominent use of strings already.

While Ritter's tunes have undeniably grown more robust and lavishly arranged over the course of his six albums, he still comes off more as a homespun folk-rocker than big-band leader. So the question heading into the show was whether the formal trappings of the Minnesota Orchestra would set atop Ritter's acoustic-based tunes like an ill-fitting formal suit or take them to the next level?

Josh Ritter with the Minnesota Orchestra, 7/15/10
Josh Ritter with the Minnesota Orchestra, 7/15/10
Josh Ritter with the Minnesota Orchestra, 7/15/10
Photos by Alexa Jones

The answer, over the course of an 80-minute show before a near-capacity crowd, was definitively the latter. As it turns out, Josh Ritter and his 4-piece backing unit, the Royal City Band, are old pros at this whole pop-music-meets orchestra thing, having previously teamed up with the Boston Symphony and New York Pops orchestras (a fact I learned from skimming that night's program). The 1-2 opening punch of  "Change of Time" followed by "Rumors" proved the Minnesota Orchestra equally adept backing for Ritter whether supplying understated warm brass tones ("Change of Time") or Rocky-style fervor ("Rumors").

While clearly comfortable swinging for the symphonic fences, Ritter's show actually benefited from restraint, with 4 of the 14 songs featuring no orchestral accompaniment and many of the arrangements opting for understated support over bombastic backing. Their relative scarcity made the moments when the orchestra fully swelled behind the band that much more effective ("The Other Side" and "A Girl in the War" featured particularly riveting, high-drama orchestral arrangements). Clearly not just another night on the road for Ritter, he beamed like a giddy schoolboy throughout the night and was bouncing on his toes as he strummed and sang. The joy was infectious and made for a night to remember from an increasingly polished showman.

Critic's bias: Pretty sure Ritter peaked four years ago with the flat-out stupendous Animal Years album, but So Runs the World Away is certainly a solid workmanlike effort.
The crowd: Half gray-haired Orchestra Hall regulars seemingly befuddled at the proceedings, half 89.3 the Current fanboys eager to get clap-alongs started.
Overheard in the crowd: "I would have gone to see Ben Folds here last year, but it was on Halloween ... I drink on Halloween."
Random notebook dump: "I wish for you all to have the chance to play with an orchestra sometime ... it's great." - Josh Ritter
Total set time: 80 minutes

Set list:

Change of Time
Right Moves
Lark (no orchestral accompaniment)
Long Shadows (no orchestral accompaniment)
Other Side
Monster Ballads
The Curse (no orchestral accompaniment)
In the Dark (solo acoustic with lights fully dimmed and singing away from mic)
Best for the Best
A Girl in the War
Sean O'Laughlin reading Edgar Allan Poe's poem  "Annabelle Lee"
Another New World

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